Translated from the Bulgarian by Angela Rodel
(Rochester, NY: Open Letter, 2015)
The unnamed narrator of Georgi Gospodinov’s inventive, ambitious novel The Physics of Sorrow suffers from “pathological empathy or obsessive empathetic-somatic syndrome,” most acutely in his childhood. “Over the years the attacks became easier to control and lost their most acute manifestations, without disappearing entirely. Just as in empathy . . . we never know where the person wanders when he is in such a fit.”
As the novel opens, the narrator has wandered into a memory of his Grandfather’s—he becomes his Grandfather at a fair in a small Bulgarian town in the mid-1920’s, being ushered into a tent to encounter a Minotaur. The myth of the Minotaur, concealed within a labyrinth until he is killed by Theseus, is a guiding theme in the novel, as is the myth of Scheherazade, who told other people’s stories to keep herself alive. One would be tempted to describe the structure of the novel as labyrinthine because of the numerous tangents Gospodinov takes—until the tangents become the narrative itself. But I was reminded more of the Tarot, with its mythic figures, in which a skilled reader can hold up a card and describe how it relates to the cards already spread out on the table.
Part family history, part coming-of-age saga with slight dips into magical realism, part stories of his village, part amusing riffs on outdated technology, the end of the world, and how to answer the question “How are you?” under Communist rule, The Physics of Sorrow is never less than thought-provoking and entertaining, as entertaining, that is, as a novel about sadness, loss and abandonment can be. It vividly evokes life in Mitteleuropa under Communist rule, where the narrator, his family and his community lived in basements both literally and metaphorically. They were poor, isolated and felt abandoned by the world. Before the end of the Cold War, the narrator tells us, 80% of Bulgarians had never been outside the country. The narrator steals a cookbook with the wonderful title “What to Cook During a Crisis,” and takes it home to his girlfriend, where they both enact the preparation of a pear cake, not bothered by the fact that they lack every single ingredient. Later, the narrator and a friend, unable to afford to go to the cinema, try to raise the funds for the price of a ticket by standing outside the marquee, inventing stories based on the movies’ posters.
The movies, of course, are a place of wonder, even when they’re boring. When they’re boring, the narrator finds an entertaining world by staring into the beam from the projection booth:
It swarmed with chaotically dancing particles . . . this magical dust made up the faces and bodies of the most attractive men and women in the world, as well as horses, swords, bows and arrows, kisses, love, absolutely everything.
This inventiveness saves him; stories save him, despite his sorrow. He grows up, becomes a writer (of course) and the Cold War ends—not with a bang, in Bulgaria’s case, but with a whimper: an announcement on television. Early on in the novel, the narrative breaks out of chronological form and becomes “a story in which eras catch up with one another and intertwine.” He switches generations and viewpoints, switches from autobiographical anecdotes back to the suffering of the poor, isolated Minotaur. He roams and ruminates, provides photos and illustrations to make his point. He is still burdened by his pathological empathy but more able to cope with it than he was as a child. “Empathy predisposes you to closeness with people, but not in my case, when the weight of other’s sorrows pressed down on me like a sickness. No women, no relationships, no friendships.”
Eventually, he returns home to “the town of T.” and moves into the basement of a house he lived in as a child. He collects stories. He makes lists:
I felt an urgent need to horde, to organize things into boxes and notebooks, into lists and enumerations. To preserve things with words. The empty space left behind by one obsession can always be taken up by another. Before, I could inhabit all the bodies in the world, now I’m happy if I manage to move from room to room within the house of my own body.
The Physics of Sorrow has many endings (as it has many beginnings) because both Gospodinov and his narrator have made it clear that they like to leave stories open for other possible turns (like a labyrinth). The favorite of my endings finds Theseus encountering the Minotaur and protesting that he has no desire to kill it. “Someone forced me into this story,” he explains, and together they leave the labyrinth.
“I see them,” the narrator tells us, “walking along together . . . weaving parallel labyrinths from the threads of their stories, themselves entangled in them. And nothing can ever separate them again, the storyteller and his killer.”
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Elizabeth Bales Frank is a novelist and freelance writer whose work has appeared in commercial and literary magazines. Read more of her at elizafrank.com. She lives in Astoria, New York.