Twelve Days of Messenger’s Blog – Day Eleven

251d4-sorrowOnto my eleventh favourite work for the year, a book that has received accolades far and wide, from the shortlist of the 2016 Best Translated Book Award, and culminating in a longlist nomination for the 2017 Dublin Literary Award. Georgi Gospodinov’s “The Physcis of Sorrow” (Translated by Angela Rodel) 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.

A book I thoroughly enjoyed for its humour, its labyrinth style and the cryptic puzzle style. A challenging but rollicking adventure into Bulgarian literature.

My review used the children’s television program “My Little Pony” and an exiled Yugoslavian writer as its reference points. Here is a copy to jog your memories;

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 one subversive “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 one writer, 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 http://www.dubravkaugresic.com/

 

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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 http://www.mytwostotinki.com/?p=2841) 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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Circus Bulgaria – Deyan Enev (translated by Kapka Kassabova)

It is purely by chance that I stumbled across “Bulgarian Literature Month”, as arranged by Thomas at “Mytwostotinki” (see http://www.mytwostotinki.com/?p=2841on how to participate). Having recently read “The Physics Of Sorrow” by Georgi Gospodinov and then “Party Headquarters” by Georgi Tenev (both books translated by Angela Rodel), I found myself being thanked by Thomas for my Bulgarian literature coverage, therefore I thought I would explore the field a little more and have committed to at least another two books, Gospodinov’s earlier “And Other Stories” as I thoroughly enjoyed his most recent release, which made the 2016 Best Translated Book Award Shortlist, and the collection of short stories titled “Circus Bulgaria” by Deyan Enev (translated by Kapka Kassabova).
This two hundred and fifty one page volume contains fifty short stories, all very short, some little more than two pages, others covering a little more real estate. Writer Deyan Evev, a graduate from Sofia University in Bulgarian language and literature, has extensive publications in his role as a journalist, and his earlier occupations of house-painter, hospital attendant and teacher shine through in this collection. Originally titled “Everybody Standing on the Bow” the English language release was titled “Circus Bulgaria” and the book was longlisted for the Frank O’Connor English language short story collection contest.
Unlike a lot of collections of short stories this collection is hard to review, given the breadth of the tales, Tibor Fischer (author of the Booker Prize shortlisted “Under The Frog” in 1992 – the first debut novel to be shortlisted for the award) describes the collection in an article at “The Guardian”:
The overall tone of the collection, despite the general grimness of the panorama, is gentle and serene. You feel that Enev is a man at ease with hopelessness, who has made his accommodation with failure.
Heather McRobie at Café Babel says;  The fullness of Enev’s stories is mediated through his reverence for words. Language creeps into the natural world, and the natural world becomes text.
And the “Times Literary Supplement” in December 2010 said; The stories in Deyan Enev’s Circus Bulgaria bristle with life’s illogic. Wild, lawless and sad-funny, they are a kind of continuous discourse on the amorality and unknowability of life. 
All in all a thumbs up set of reviews, for such a diverse collection of stories, that mainly look at life in Bulgaria post-Communist rule. With tales about such subjects as destitution leasing to prostitution, post war mental hospitals (there a numerous stories with this setting, and I can only assume Deyan Enev’s resume of inclusion of “hospital attendant” on his resume was actually in a psychiatric ward), animals, caged and chained, monkeys strangling people all mixed together in a David Lynch(esque) style world where the characters of dancing girls (strippers) and crippled phone sex workers become blurred, this is not your standard “flash fiction” fare.
The thinly veiled references to the struggles of ordinary citizens at times becomes a little tiresome, with some rather obvious, others so cryptic I found them impossible to decipher. For example the story “Niki-Nikola” is about a news reporter finding a child and putting together a report ‘Icarus: One Boy’s Flight’..”He flew away to another country, where people are not afraid”, or the title story describing an impoverished lion tamer, circus master, who can no longer feed his sole remaining lions so he is talked into selling him to a “developer”. Or the reverse “fairy tale” where the swineherd marries the princess, however she is the one to go off and live in the forest with the pigs instead of him moving to the opulent castle. These with very straightforward messages, metaphors for the new world.
Other tales are less than straightforward but all contain a heavy dose of angst and despair, the bleak becomes the norm, the hopelessness of any worthwhile future becomes standard fare, the repetitiveness creates an anaesthetic when reading about the horrors of people being reduced to working for scraps or sex working for a warm coat.
All of the tales flow easily, via, one would assume, a wonderful translation, stumbling or re-reading not featuring at all, and the bleakness of the prose revealing a poet at work (both the author and the translator are published poets).
He had a prophet’s beard, an eye for four-leaf clovers and a hand that always cast the winning dice at backgammon. In winter he went about in his father’s old anorak, and in summer he wore the canvas trainers he’d worn for basketball games at high school. We’d shared a desk from Year One to Year Eleven. We called each other Joe, as in that children’s song about Lemonade Joe: ‘Joe peeks from the grave, winks with his left eye…’ or however it went.
The descriptions vivid enough to allow your imagination to run wild, something that is a relief with the very short tales involved:
He is like a teardrop with her arched brows, her ankles thin as spindles, her bosoms like freshly risen dough.
Overall another nice collection and a different view to Bulgarian literature than my two recent reads, however I do feel the collection could have been tightened up a little, with possibly 10-15 stories taking place in a mental hospital that theme began to wear rather thin.

Onto Georgi Gospodinov next and his short collection of short stories “And Other Stories”, afterwards I think a straightforward narrative is in order, wonder if I own one!!! 

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Party Headquarters – Georgi Tenev (translated by Angela Rodel)

Leaving, becoming distant from yourself, that’s at the basis of weightlessness. When you break away from your earthly stance, when you leave your orbit as well, the planets shrink in the portholes. Your individual body becomes the center of all attraction. You spin in the vacuum-womb like a stellar baby, who is the beginning and the end of everything, just as it is its very self.
Bulgarian cosmonauts participated in the Soviet space program. The first Bulgarian visited space in 1979 on the Russian ship Soyuz-33. The second – and for the time being, the final – Bulgarian cosmonaut blasted off in 1988, several years before the break up of the USSR. (From “Notes on the Translation” in “Party Headquarters”.)
On 26 April 1986 reactor number 4 at the Chernobyl power station blew apart. Five days later the Bulgarian State compelled people to parade in the “spontaneous manifestations” in celebration of May 1. That day was recorded as one of the days that the fallout from Chernobyl over Bulgaria was at its heaviest.
 “Bulgarian politicians kept quiet but shipped in uncontaminated food from other countries for their families,” says Stefan Pavlov in an article entitled “Sofia’s Choice”. If you would like more details on the Bulgarian fallout from the Chernobyl disaster read Sofia Echo’s article “Bulgaria’s Chernobyl cover-up” here http://sofiaecho.com/2011/04/22/1079288_bulgarias-chernobyl-cover-up
And of course we have 2015 Nobel Prize Winner Svetlana Alexievich’s work “Voices from Chernobyl” to give us even more details on the catastrophe.
When a routine test went catastrophically wrong, a chain reaction went out of control in No 4 reactor of Chernobyl nuclear power station in Ukraine, creating a fireball that blew off the reactor’s 1,000-tonne steel-and-concrete lid. Burning graphite and hot reactor-core material ejected by the explosions started numerous other fires, including some on the combustible tar roof of the adjacent reactor unit. There were 31 fatalities as an immediate result of the explosion and acute radiation exposure in fighting the fires, and more than 200 cases of severe radiation sickness in the days that followed.
Evacuation of residents under the plume was delayed by the Soviet authorities’ unwillingness to admit the gravity of the incident. Eventually, more than 100,000 people were evacuated from the surrounding area in Ukraine and Belarus.
In the week after the accident the Soviets poured thousands of untrained, inadequately protected men into the breach. Bags of sand were dropped on to the reactor fire from the open doors of helicopters (analysts now think this did more harm than good). When the fire finally stopped, men climbed on to the roof to clear the radioactive debris. The machines brought in broke down because of the radiation. The men barely lasted more than a few weeks, suffering lingering, painful deaths.
But had this effort not been made, the disaster might have been much worse. The sarcophagus, designed by engineers from Leningrad, was manufactured in absentia – the plates assembled with the aid of robots and helicopters – and as a result there are fissures. Now known as the Cover, reactor No 4 still holds approximately 20 tonnes of nuclear fuel in its lead-and-metal core. No one knows what is happening with it.
For neighbouring Belarus, with a population of just 10 million, the nuclear explosion was a national disaster: 70% of the radionucleides released in the accident fell on Belarus. During the second world war, the Nazis destroyed 619 Belarussian villages, along with their inhabitants. As a result of fallout from Chernobyl, the country lost 485 villages and settlements. Of these, 70 have been buried underground by clean-up teams known as “liquidators”.
Today, one out of every five Belarussians lives on contaminated land. That is 2.1 million people, of whom 700,000 are children. Because of the virtually permanent presence of small doses of radiation around the “Zone”, the number of people with cancer, neurological disorders and genetic mutations increases with each year.
          excerpt from “Voices From Chernobyl” by Nobel Prize Winner Svetlana Alexievich (translated by Keith Gessen) Read more excerpts at http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2005/apr/25/energy.ukraine
Of course Svetlana Alexievich’s book explores the disaster from a Belarusian and Ukrainian point of view, however numerous surrounding countries were severely impacted, including Bulgaria.
Only last week there was a revelation that LSD experiments were conducted in Bulgaria in the 1960’s, “What has not been known until recently is that dozens of experiments involving the psychedelic drug were carried out in Communist Bulgaria, from 1962 to 1968, by the Bulgarian psychiatrist Marina Boyadjieva. Among the human guinea pigs were doctors, artists, miners, truck drivers, and even prisoners and mentally ill patients. These research subjects were involved in some 140 trials.” The Early, State-Sanctioned LSD Experiments in Communist Bulgaria by Jordan Todorov , more at http://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/the-early-state-sanctioned-lsd-experiments-in-communist-bulgaria
Georgi Tenev’s “Party Headquarters” uses the space race, the Chernobyl disaster and the myth of Bulgarian politicians stashing briefcases full of cash and escaping to the west at the time of the fall of communism to weave a darkly comic, mystery, off kilter novel. So off kilter is this work that the page numbers appear sideways, I couldn’t help but think, is Georgi Tenev on some sort of psychedelic drug experiment himself as this fractured, rapid paced, jigsaw of a tale unfolded.
The novel opens with tears, needless to say you are warned from the opening page that you are in for an emotional journey.
I never imagined that I would get mixed up with the daughter of one of them. But fatal meetings are always marked by signs from the very beginning. I’m talking about fleeting clues. But no one tells you “Watch out!”, you don’t hear any voice yelling “Stop!” And the fact that at that very moment the angels fall silent most likely means they’re egging you on. That the meeting is divinely inspired; the meeting is the beginning of the collision of love.
There is also a physical activity, exercise theme throughout, with introductory and occasional references to running, the pace of the novel speeds up, slows down with exhaustion, cramp in line with these activities. A few flashbacks to the 1976 movie “Marathon Man” did cross my mind and the themes of pursuit and endurance are the possible connections for me. Delirium and fractured thoughts becoming more frequent as the exhaustion kicks in.
As per the later day exposes that children of the party leaders were treated differently to every day citizens, our protagonist/narrator is involved in a relationship with the infamous “K-shev”, owner of the briefcase containing 1.5 million Euros and a party head. Through this relationship we get flashes of life for the elite:
They don’t have school for a few days, so they don’t have snacks during recess. They brought different food and milk in a jar; frothy and very sour – this is the way it has to be, they told her, you mustn’t eat anything else. The wild plums of springtime, the wild cherries in the courtyard of the residence – everything was forbidden. Vacation, they told her, but not at the seaside – you can’t go to the seaside, now isn’t a good time for the seaside.
A novel that reads like a Prozac induced, hallucinatory drug induced rant by a deeply self-obsessed soul, sharing all of his disgust at living under communist rule.
Childhood, those naïve lessons at school, were an illusion that life is valuable in and of itself. The army is that blessed experiment that divides the body on the one hand from its meaning on the other: In the sun, in a uniform sewn with unimaginable flair for discomfort. In scratchy fabric that even wild tribes wouldn’t wrap their dead n before tossing them into the grave – there and as such, here and now you stand. And while the sun crawls slowly overhead, as if waiting for you to curse it, insulting comparisons explode in the brain. Curses and insults want to fly off your tongue toward your very self – but why?
A blur of a novel that is peppered with bizarre sexual experiences, laugh out loud reflections on what it is to be human, dark memories of darker times all presented in an atomic style, with chemistry, and radioactive fallout always hovering on the horizon.
I, of course, am deeply convinced that the world revolves around me – at its center or at least as the object of its dictatorship. The idea is grandiose and never gets tiresome. Until you finally decide to enter real life.
Not your standard narrative style, nor fitting any usual novel structures this work is for those who like to explore the different styles, cultures and plots from around the globe. Thanks to Open Letter books for continuing to produce books that challenge the reader and open our eyes to the works of so many nations and languages. I can assure you a subscription will give you plenty to think about over your reading journey.

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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 http://www.dubravkaugresic.com/

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