The Bulgarian Sadness of Georgi Gospodinov
In December, 2010, The Economist published an article on “the geography of happiness” which declared Bulgaria—at that time (along with Romania) the newest, and perhaps most maligned, member of the E.U.—“the saddest place in the world.” Almost exactly a year later, Georgi Gospodinov, Bulgaria’s best-known writer, published his second novel, “The Physics of Sorrow.” (Open Letter Books publishes an English translation this month.) In interviews, Gospodinov positioned the book as, in part, a response to the Economist article and to broader clichés about the Eastern European temperament: “Ultimately my protagonist is trying to tell a story about precisely this place, the saddest place, and to cope with his own sadnesses. Or at least to put them in order and describe them.” The novel was a sensation in Bulgaria: its first printing sold out in a day, and it went on to become the country’s best-selling book of 2012. It swept the national literary prizes, and in translation was shortlisted for several major European awards, including the Premio Strega Europeo and the Brücke Berlin Preis.
The book’s international success is something of a surprise for a writer from a country about which, as Gospodinov has said, “there’s not much literary curiosity.” Gospodinov was born in Yambol, a small city in the country’s southeast, and spent much of his childhood in Topolovgrad, a much smaller town near the Turkish border; the juxtaposition of scenes of village and small-town life with modernist literary high jinks provides much of the pleasure of his work. After two well-received books of poetry, the publication of “Natural Novel,” in 1999, thrust him into the forefront of his generation of Bulgarian writers, the first to emerge after the country’s transition to democracy. The book—an English translation was published by Dalkey Archive Press in 2005—takes its title from Foucault, whom Gospodinov quotes in an epigraph: “Natural history is nothing but the nomination of the visible.” It is a collection of fragments—vignettes, digressions, fables, lists, metafictional musings—clustered loosely around the dissolution of the narrator’s marriage. “My immodest desire is to mold a novel of beginnings,” the narrator says, though he repeatedly calls into question the viability of the entire genre: “How can even the idea of a novel be possible when the sublime is gone and all we have is everyday life?” It is precisely “everyday life” that interests Gospodinov and that is the subject of all of his work, which includes plays, essays, screenplays, and a “tragicomic” called “Vechnata Muha” (“The Eternal Fly”), which was the first Bulgarian graphic novel.
Chronicling everyday life in Bulgaria means trying to communicate Bulgarian “sadness,” which is—to the extent that these things can be disentangled—as much a linguistic as a metaphysical dilemma. As Gospodinov conceives it, the Bulgarian word tuga (which his translator, Angela Rodel, renders as “sorrow”) is, like Pamuk’s hüzün or Nabokov’s toska, a word for which there’s no real equivalent in English. (Maybe everyone imagines their sorrow to be untranslatable; maybe they’re right.) Gospodinov’s tuga is “a longing for something that hasn’t happened … a sudden realization that life is slipping away and that certain things will never happen to you, for a whole list of reasons—personal, geographical, political.” This sadness isn’t unique to Bulgaria, Gospodinov acknowledges; in an age of austerity, it threatens to overwhelm the entirety of Europe. But the idea of unlived lives has a particular resonance in a country where the horizon of possibility has so frequently been redrawn, and where the landscape is strewn with the ruins of “vague, abstract ideologies” and their failed promises, from decaying socialist monuments to the abandoned resorts and apartment complexes of the free-market real-estate boom.
Gospodinov rejects grand narratives altogether, offering in their place a polyphonic microchronicle of moments. As in “Natural Novel,” the narrator of “The Physics of Sorrow” is named Georgi Gospodinov, and as in the earlier book he both is and isn’t the Georgi Gospodinov who writes him. The novel arrives at a moment when American readers are fascinated by novels that flirt with autobiography and challenge distinctions between fact and fiction—recent years have seen such books from Ben Lerner, Rachel Cusk, Jenny Offill, and Teju Cole (not to mention Karl Ove Knausgaard and Elena Ferrante). But while the common forebear behind those works is W. G. Sebald, Gospodinov’s model is Borges, whose delight in mischievous games and extravagant fantasy he shares; for all Gospodinov’s obsession with sorrow, he is a trickster at heart, and often very funny. Gospodinov has called “The Physics of Sorrow” a “labyrinth-novel,” and several of its short sections are given labels like “Side Corridor” or “A Place to Stop.” The narrator refuses to accept the sadness of the definitive, linear story, with its foreclosed possibilities: “I try to leave space for other versions to happen,” he says, “cavities in the story, more corridors, voices and rooms, unclosed-off stories, as well as secrets that we will not pry into.”
This narrative play allows Gospodinov to emulate what he has called “the non-eventfulness” of recent history in Bulgaria, where the Communist era passed without the mass protests that rocked other parts of the Eastern Bloc. Even in 1989, the fall of the regime was “too easy,” he says: when the Communist head of state was forced out of office, Gospodinov remembers, “we were told by the TV that we were now free.” His “natural novels” attempt to capture the texture of a life in which world-historical events seem to gain little purchase, to fill what he calls, in “The Physics of Sorrow,” “the empty space … between Istanbul, Vienna, and Budapest.”
Very loosely, with many leaps forward and doublings back, the novel follows the contours of Georgi’s life, from his birth—which, like Tristram Shandy, he remembers—through his schooling and army service under Communism, to his adulthood as a successful writer and an increasingly melancholy man. In childhood, Georgi is afflicted by “obsessive empathetic-somatic syndrome,” a heightened, involuntary empathy that inserts him in the experience of everything around him: family members, neighbors, animals, even a slug his grandfather swallows as an ulcer remedy. He loses this capacity as he ages, and compensates by becoming an obsessive collector of other people’s stories. He writes the novel as a middle-aged man, “the most hesitant and unsure of writers,” spending more and more time in his basement. He suffers from a “Noah complex,” hoarding stories and experiences against an apocalypse that he senses as impending, though its form remains uncertain: global warming, nuclear war, the horsemen of his grandmother’s forbidden Bible, take your pick. Like “Natural Novel,” the book is a collection of disparate parts that cohere, to the extent they do cohere, as a kind of frustrated bildungsroman, the narrator’s attempt to understand his own sadness and sense of doom.
About halfway through “The Physics of Sorrow,” we learn that Georgi has a young child, which gives urgency to some of the book’s obsessions, especially the recurring motif of abandoned children. Chief among these children is the Minotaur, who in Gospodinov’s retelling is a lonely three-year-old child locked in a basement. The narrator’s daughter appears on only a handful of pages, but she serves as his Ariadne’s thread, leading him from the labyrinthine past to the present moment (“First winter. First snow. First wind. First dog. First cloud,” he catalogues), and, at times, relieving his sorrow: “While I’m writing about the world’s sorrows, Portuguese saudade, Turkish hüzün, about the Swiss illness—nostalgia … she comes to me, at two and a half, and suddenly snatches away my pen.” Georgi’s need to understand and accept his melancholy, if not to resolve it, becomes more compelling as we realize that failure would mean adding his daughter to the novel’s list of abandoned children: in his darkest moments, he tells us, “I wanted to spare others my presence—my daughter most of all.”
Recent events in Bulgaria have prompted Gospodinov to meditate further on these themes. In February, 2013, he published a collection of essays and stories, “Nevidimite Krizi” (“The Invisible Crises”), in which he argued that beneath the 2008 financial crisis was another, more devastating crisis: the depletion of what he calls “deposits of meaning.” The same week the book was published, protests erupted in Sofia that would in short order bring down the center-right government. “We have poverty, we have desperation,” he said in interviews at the time, “but beyond that there is no horizon.” The question, he argued, “is not who will pay my electricity bill”—the high price of electricity is what triggered the protests—“but who will pay for my frustrated life.” For Gospodinov, the crisis is as much intellectual and aesthetic as it is economic. The alternative to an imaginable future is a retreat to an imagined past: to the nostalgic decor of socialist-themed night clubs and bars (“it is easier to sell nostalgia than to analyze it”), or, more frighteningly, to what Gospodinov calls the “kitsch” of nationalism, the fantasies of Bulgaria’s past greatness invoked by the far-right Ataka Party, which gained influence in the coalition formed after the February protests. Both nostalgia and nationalism, in this account, are attempts to flee from or deny the sorrow of the present. Resisting them requires embracing that sorrow, and Georgi’s real quest in “The Physics of Sorrow” is to find a way to live with sadness, to allow it to be a source of empathy and salutary hesitation—the antidote to aggressive politics and “market exhortations”—and not a cause of “savage fear.”