The Physics of Sorrow – Georgi Gospodinov (translated by Angela Rodel) – Best Translated Book Award 2016

Can “My Little Pony”, a Yugoslavian living in the Netherlands, and modern Bulgarian literature have something in common? Let’s see if I can start with the Yugoslav living in the Netherlands, move through an animated children’s television program, and travel through a novel shortlisted for the Best Translated Book Award. Enter my labyrinth, let’s hope there’s not too many dead ends.
In our contemporary society – which is highly homogenized by the global marketplace – intellectual and artistic heresy is like oxygen. Globalized culture sucks that oxygen from our mental landscape. The global marketplace pretends that it offers us a diversity of products but in fact sells us the powerful substitute of the holy ONE. Today, we get one “subversive” philosopher, one“subversive” artist, and onesubversive “writer”: the global market can’t bare more than one! In other words, we get one Coca-Cola, but we believe that by consuming it we consume the whole world. Celebs are our modern prophets, whether they sell the photos of their impressive posteriors, like Kim Kardashian, or the seductive theories, like Slavoj Žižek, or millions of their books, like Haruki Murakami. I don’t have anything against Kim Kardashian or, God forbid, against the great Slavoj Žižek, or my fellow writer Haruki Murakami, but the holy ONE policy (created, ultimately, by consumers themselves) is a quite obvious sign of a society homogenizing its tastes and needs. That’s why many cultural “species” (forms, patterns, genres, practices, ideas, and cultural spaces) are disappearing. The global market standardizes our tastes, our intellectual and cultural needs. In the result, we all read one book, one Bible, one Koran, we all follow one “prophet”; we all wait in long lines to buy a new book by onewriter, or in line to see the exhibition of one artist. There is a market pressure to love Him, to buy Him, and as we live in a religious world, we like to establish our modern “prophets” (in visual art, the entertainment industry, literature, film, etc.). And then we like them and respect them because everybody else likes and respects them…
Taken from “A Conversation with Dubravka Ugrešić” by Daniel Medin.
Published in “Music & Literature” Number 6
Given the history of the Minotaur in literature, you would think another work using the mythological beast as a metaphor would fit the contemporary society overflow. A writer with limited coverage in the English speaking world would not fit the profile of a “modern prophet”.
If you google the Minotaur and “popular culture” the results are astounding, wresting, anime, Batman, Doctor Who, Percy Jackson, The Hunger Games, Dexter, Power Rangers, Time Bandits, Inspector Gadget, “The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe”, Borges, Kubrick’s “The Shining” video games, manga, even My Little Pony.
Not every reader has studied Classical Greek Mythology, and I’m fairly confident children watching “My Little Pony” and coming across a character called “Iron Will”, half bull, half pony, who puts on an “assertiveness” seminar in a hedge maze would have no idea of the references.
For those interested in seeking out the “My Little Pony” reference it is season 2, episode 19 “Putting Your Hoof Down”, written by long term SpongeBob Square pants writer Merriwether Williams (credited with 47 episodes of SpongeBob) from a story by Charlotte Fullerton. A full stream of the “My Little Pony” episode is available on line. In the episode, besides a Minotaur in a hedge maze we have Fluttershy pony becoming ashamed of her newly learned assertiveness and being locked in a dark room. When pressed by other polite ponies about her behaviour she yells; “Iron Will is not a monster, he’s a MINOTAUR.”
In the basement of the palace in Crete, Daedalus built a labyrinth of such confounding galleries that once you went inside it you could never find the exit again. Minos locked up his family’s shame, his wife Pasiphaē’s son, in this underground labyrinth. She conceived this son by a bull send by the god Poseidon. The Minotaur – a monster with a human body and a bull’s head. Every nine years the Athenians were forced to send seven maidens and seven youths to be devoured by him. Then the hero Theseus appeared, who decided to kill the Minotaur. Without her father’s knowledge, Ariadne gave Theseus a sharp sword and a ball of string. He tied the string to the entrance and set off down the endless corridors to hunt the Minotaur. He walked and walked until he suddenly heard a terrible roar – the monster was rushing toward him with its enormous horns. A frightful battle ensued. Finally, Theseus grabbed the Minotaur by the horns and plunged his sharp sword into his chest. The monster slumped to the ground and Theseus dragged him all the way back to the entrance.
          Ancient Greek Myths and Legends
Georgi Gospodinov’s book “The Physics of Sorrow” sides with the fate of the Minotaur, he argues that he is merely a victim, he had no choice in being born and banished to the underground, he had to eat, and he was trapped in a labyrinth. Why do the majority of references identify the Minotaur as a monster?
As well as the Minotaur, the labyrinth has also featured heavily in popular culture and not just in literature, in fact there have been thesis’ written on the subject of labyrinths and literature, one I found on-line quoting Umberto Eco, (of course Ovid), Friedrich Nietzsche, Jorge Luis Borges, on the opening pages. I’m not even going to address the labyrinth and popular culture…video games, maze runners, it’s endless.
“No one realised that the book and the labyrinth were one and the same.” Victor Pelevin
But Georgi Gospodinov’s work is so much more than a design around the labyrinth motif and the Minotaur as a metaphor. A collection of short personalised views, vignettes, stories, rambling paragraphs, it is a work not easily defined, the deciphering is akin to solving a cryptic crossword, but the resultant challenge and enlightenment, once you find your way through his labyrinth of dead ends, is a very rewarding journey indeed.
Opening with a “prologue” defining seven versions of “I” (1913, 1968, always, never, not yet, 1944 and enduring nature) noting the “seven” definitions, the number of victims sent to the Minotaur, and the specific years, two preceding the two world wars and the other the year Bulgarian forces participated in the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia.  Later in the novel you will also learn of other important references to the relative years, or time periods. Each and every page contains a wealth of information that may be worth researching, or it may be just a contribution to Gospodinov’s collection of junk, a dead end in the labyrinth.
Once you get a little deeper into the book you discover that the narrator is in fact Georgi Gospodinov himself and we find that he has the ability to inhabit other people’s memories, the stories of his family, his friendships, at times the tales are written in the first-person, at other times in the third person.
I write in the first person to make sure that I’m still alive.
I write in the third person to make sure that I’m not just a projection of my own self, that I’m three-dimensional and have a body. Sometimes I nudge a glass and note with satisfaction that it falls and breaks. So I do still exist and cause consequences.
This family structure is a labyrinth itself, he inhabits his grandfather’s experiences, who was accidentally left behind at the flour mill, during World War One, as a three-year-old. We have the same grandfather visiting the fair, again alone, with a “fiver” which he uses to visit a Minotaur “there is sorrow in him, which no animal possesses.”
Just as the Minotaur is abandoned, has no childhood, lives in sorrow, this is a “novel” that explores human abandonment, the absence of childhood, and of course, as the title suggests, sorrow, the reader is led through the deep caverns (labyrinth) of the author’s mind. There are numerous times and experiences divulged, we have the exploration of growing up in Communist Bulgaria, the boredom, the absence of children, the television programs (propaganda), the training, even the sexual awakening in a repressed society. We have the author himself being exiled, or is it somebody he inhabits?
Let’s wait here for the souls of distracted readers. Somebody could have gotten lost in the corridors of these different times. Did everyone come back from the war? How about from the fair in 1925? Let’s hope we didn’t forget anyone at the mill. So where shall we set out for now? Writers shouldn’t ask such questions, but as the most hesitant and unsure among them, I’ll take that liberty. Shall we turn toward the story of the father, or continue on ahead, which in this case is backward, toward the Minotaur of childhood…I can’t offer a linear story, because no labyrinth and no story is ever linear. Are we all here? Off we go again.
Later in the novel Gospodinov becomes a purveyor of stories, within these stories he can create a childhood, he can reject abandonment, a true storyteller is one who can inhabit another’s thoughts. The labyrinth becomes less dark.
“The Physics of Sorrow” is littered with quotable quotes, philosophical observations about our planet, our very beings, as you read them you wonder, ‘is this another dead end to the labyrinth?’, however, as a whole the collection comes to a crescendo, the final clues of the cryptic puzzle fall into place, the fact that this is indeed a rare gem comes to the fore. Yes it may be a rough unpolished gem in places, that doesn’t mean it is any less precious.
There is also a hilarious, but true, section on the banality of the question “How are you?” and the phobia our writer has for being asked such, a listing of the clichéd replies, a la ‘fine thanks’, ‘hanging in there’, ‘getting by’ and a further listing of the available answers to the question. My personal favourite from the list is “I’m not”.
Experimental in style, moving through myth, fact, fiction, meta-fiction, philosophy, photographs (there are some included as well as artworks) and even noises, this is not a book for those who want a straightforward narrative style. Given the limited media coverage for this work, although being shortlisted for the Best Translated Book Award will help, this wonderful book risks being another victim of our “homogenized contemporary society”. To me a work which explores the limits of fiction, another “subversive” writer I am glad the Best Translated Book Award has introduced me to.
Who knows, maybe one day there will no longer be Literature. Instead there will be literary web sites. Like those stars, still shining but long dead, the web sites will testify to the existence of past writers. There will be quotes, fragments of texts, which prove that there used to be complete texts once. Instead of readers there will be cyber space travelers who will stumble upon the websites by chance and stop for a moment to gaze at them. How they will read them? Like hieroglyphs? As we read the instructions for a dishwasher today? Or like remnants of a strange communication that meant something in the past, and was called Literature?

Taken from the Home Page of Dubravka Ugrešić’s website

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One thought on “The Physics of Sorrow – Georgi Gospodinov (translated by Angela Rodel) – Best Translated Book Award 2016

  1. Pingback: 2017 International Dublin Award Longlist | ANZ LitLovers LitBlog

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