And Other Stories – Georgi Gospodinov (Translated by Alexis Levitin & Megdelena Levy)

Last month I reviewed the 2016 Best Translated Book Award shortlisted “The Physics of Sorrow” by Georgi Gospodinov (translated by Angela Rodel). As previously mentioned in another review, the public rantings of myself looking for meaning in “My Little Pony” and linking that to Gospodinov’s novel, led to Thomas from “Mytwostotinki” (see thanking me for my coverage of Bulgarian literature and I then went on to read “Party Headquarters” by Georgi Tenev (also translated by Angela Rodel) and then “Circus Bulgaria” by Deyan Enev (translated by Kapka Kassabova). My final visit to Bulgaria for the month of June is again to my favourite of the three writers mentioned above, Georgi Gospodinov, and a much earlier release, his collection of twenty-one short stories titled “And Other Stories” (translated by Alexis Levitin and Magdalena Levy).
The structure of Gospodinov’s “The Physics of Sorrow”, where the reader is lost in a labyrinth, with multiple dead ends, many strands of thought and a collection of ramblings that appear to be unconnected, hints very much towards a writer skilled or grounded in writing short stories. This English translation was released in 2007 and is made up of fifteen stories which had appeared in eleven other publications, plus six other stories. This could lead to an uneven collection, however personally I didn’t think that was the case.
Full of Gospodinov’s humour, dry wit and trickery, each story is a joy to read. Starting with “Peonies and Forget-Me-Nots” a tale of an anonymous man in his “early thirties” and an anonymous girl in her late twenties” who meet in an airport to carry out a pre-arranged task of handing over a package, they instantly are in love. This is a beautiful story that within three pages captures the speechlessness of first meeting a “soul mate”, the desire to grow old together, the knowledge of fate or a pre-determined future. The stage has been set for you to be shaken up every couple of pages…
My first awareness of the afterlife came to me in a village outhouse. A warm and secluded place, sheltered and isolated from the bustle of the world. Staring at the toilet hole, I saw the inferno. That dark opening there led down to the bottomless pit, to infernal flames. And how slowly those big green flies, those Lucifers of the underworld, soared about, how they flickered for an instant in the light before heading down.
High above, through the loosened roof tiles and the heavy spider-webs, I could see heaven, and down there, right under my feet, hell boiled and bubbled. And death was making itself clear, once and for all. Heaven took its souls through the roof tiles, and the bodies plopped into the inferno. That was the essence of the afterlife.
                                                                                                – from “First Steps”
Without revealing too much of each story, you can expect to have your assumptions questioned, to be repulsed, an great example is “The Christmas Soul of a Pig”, to be led down a path about the art of writing stories, of the joy of foreign language, a whole pot-pourri of concepts bringing you closer to the life of a Bulgarian citizen in post-Communist Eastern Europe.
With her left eye she could see only the past, and with the right one only what was about to happen in the future. And even though both her eyes were open, like the eyes of all seeing people, Vaysha was blind. Everybody called her Blind Vaysha. She barely left her house, and out in the yard she walked with her arms stretched before her, stumbling against the cherry tree, getting scratched all over by the blackberry bushes, and toppling down the pots in the sheds. To her, the cherry tree, the blackberry bushes, and the pots didn’t exist, as well as the day itself. To her left eye they still hadn’t come out of the earth, to the right one they had already died and turned back to earth.
                                                                                                – from “Blind Vaysha (An unfinished story)”
A few times I was reminded of the collection of Augusto Monterroso’s “Complete Works and Other Stories” (translated by Edith Grossman), the recollection could be simply because of the plain white covers, it could be the use of “Other Stories” in the title, or it could have been the similar humour and cheekiness within the works. Monterroso’s collection contains an introduction by Will H. Corral that reads in part;
Monterroso’s prose is supple, analytical, full of irony and intricate nuances. What also emerges in his work…is writing that peels away the social veneers that conceal the beast within human beings and reveals all that they have accomplished or undone throughout history…. reading them (the short stories) will prove the futility of discussing their contents in full.
A description that could easily apply to Gospodinov’s collection, with the suppleness replaced by grittiness, that down-beat style of noir crime stories, the “in your face” realism giving the stories a hard Eastern European edge, the magic realism (oft quoted when talking of central American literature) more grounded.
He had it all in his pocket – the money, the cigarettes, the lighter…He looked around just once more, then carefully put on his bowler hat, took the bag, opened it for the third time that morning, and for the third time made sure the six densely printed pages were there. Then he fidgeted about the hallway, peeked into the kitchen, said a quick “Bye-bye Barbie,” even though there was obviously no one there, unlocked the door, and left.
There were two possibilities.
                                                                                                – from “L. (A Crime Story)”
A very nice collection of stories and a wonderful introduction to a celebrated Bulgarian writer, it is a pity the publisher has ceased their “Writings From An Unbound Europe” collection as it means this work is now out of print (although I did manage to snaffle my copy online, I can’t image there being too many more available).
Northwestern University Press’s “Writings From an Unbound Europe” series commenced in 1993 and discontinued in 2012 after publishing sixty-one titles. Writers such as Dubravka Ugresic (“In The Jaws of Life and Other Stories”) , Olga Torkarczuk (“House of Day, House of Night”) and Bohumil Hrabal (“Gaps: A Novel”) appeared in the series, with “Death and the Dervish” by the Bosnian writer Meša Selimović their best-selling title. It is wonderful to see other publishers such as Istros Books and Twisted Spoon Press moving to plug the gap in Eastern/Central European works being available to the English speaking world, and although they are European, as opposed to US, based, their publishing efforts are ensuring continued focus on Eastern/Central European literature in translation, long may they continue to bring books to light.
One work I am eagerly awaiting (even if it will be 900 pages plus) is Olga Torkarczuk’s Nike Award winning “The Books of Jacob”, currently being translated by Jennifer Croft (who also translated Torkarczuk’s “Primeval and Other Times”).
But I digress, suddenly I’m writing about Polish literature in a post that is meant to be celebrating Bulgarian Literature month!!! With US based “Open Letter” publishing a Bulgarian novel each year, the winner of the “contemporary Bulgarian Writer’s Contest”, they have six titles currently on their lists, the future of reading Bulgarian works appears bright. Open Letter publish:
“18% Gray” by Zachary Karabashliev (translated by Angela Rodel)
“A Short Tale of Shame” by Angel Igov (translated by Angela Rodel)
“Everything Happens as it Does” by Albena Stambolova (translated by Ola Nikolova)
“Thrown Into Nature” by Milen Ruskov (translated by Angela Rodel)
And “The Physics of Sorrow” by Georgi Gospodinov and “Party Headquarters” by Georgi Tenev as previously mentioned in this review.

If Thomas again decides to host a Bulgarian Literature month in June 2017, I may well participate again!!!  

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