Book review: The Physics of Sorrow

The Physics of Sorrow.The Physics of Sorrow by Georgi Gospodinov (tr. Angela Rodel).
My rating: 4 of 5 stars.

Until now, I’d never read a Bulgarian novel. I mean, knowingly. I’ve a couple of Canetti on my shelf, awaiting cracking, but until I checked out Wikipedia’s list of Bulgarian writers, I didn’t even know he was Bulgarian.

Nothing against Bulgaria, mind. It just hadn’t occurred to me. I know, I’m probably missing out on a lot.

As a first novel from the country – the second the author has written, and larded with a bunch of awards – this was certainly an impressive first dip, even if I am still faintly mystified about what the fuck was going on here.

Overheard on a train: “During socialism, we made lots of love, because there wasn’t anything else to do.”

This book is about labyrinths. It takes the Minotaur – either the real/classical one, or one that’s internal, or one seen by a family member in a weird sideshow – as a starting point and then loops around corners, weaving a thread for the reader through the author’s thoughts. It’s fiction, but there’s enough of Gospodinov’s family history in here – at some point, the writer is a gestalt figure, encompassing his whole family – to keep things rooted in reality.

What we get is a series of enthusiasms: about ageing, about time capsules, about DNA, about socialist pasts and imagined futures. About the classics. About keeping score, about keeping lists. I mean, how can you not love a book which includes entries including (but not limited to

  • DEVOURED CHILDREN IN GREEK MYTHOLOGY (AN INCOMPLETE CATALOGUE)
  • THE MINOTAUR’S SPEECH IN HIS OWN DEFENSE (A FRAGMENT)
  • LIST OF AVAILABLE ANSWERS TO THE QUESTION HOW ARE YOU
  • A call for the creation of a book titled A History of Boredom in the 1980s
  • DESCRIPTION OF A FINNISH FAMILY OF POETS AT LUNCH IN LAHTI
  • The vicissitudes of a woman who believed Alain Delon would whisk her away from it all.
  • Cities that look empty at three in the afternoon
  • The creation (and purpose) of time capsules.
  • The Noah Complex
  • THINGS UNSUITED TO COLLECTING (A LIST OF THE PERISHABLE)
  • and, naturally, AN ELEMENTARY PHYSICS OF SORROW

It is a bit pointless to try and narrate a ‘story’ of this work, as it’s a collection of stories that lead seamlessly from one to the other, a sort of textural dérive. It devours its own tail in the attempt to explain (or at least examine) a variety of coincidences – how chance rules our lives whether we like it or not. And while it shouldn’t seem to work, it does. It’s at once a fictionalised autobiography and an attempt to define the world in one go. It’s aware of its own limitations but somehow transcends them. It seeks to define, to quantify, while always acknowledging that the act is impossible, limited as it is by both our mortality and our locked-in-ourselves point of view.

God does not give language to newborns immediately. And that’s no accident. They still know the secret of paradise, but they have no words for it. When they are given language, the secret has already been forgotten.

For all that, though, the book is funny as hell. It’s not a grim bummer, as I would have expected. This is a generous work, and it’s wry and sad in equal measure. It was a delight to experience, and credit must go to Angela Rodel’s easy-reading translation.

I suspect Gospodinov would appreciate how I came to read this book. I was flipping through my Kindle, and rather than turning over to another page of tomes, my fat fingers (or providence) decided that what I really needed to do was open this book. And of course, OCD being what it is, I couldn’t leave a book just sitting there with a partially read percentage. So, through serendipitous fingering, I strode into the labyrinth of text assembled here. And I found someone who looked a bit like me. It’s not as terrifying as the myths would have you believe.

In the small and the insignificant—that’s where life hides, that’s where it builds its nest.

My Goodreads profile is here.

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