The Physics of Sorrow

“Your bile is stagnant, you see sorrow in everything, you are drenched in melancholy,” my friend the doctor said.
bq. “Isn’t melancholy something from previous centuries? Isn’t some vaccine against it yet, hasn’t medicine taken care of it yet?” I ask.

Georgi Gospodinov’s The Physics of Sorrow was an immediate best-seller when it was published in his native Bulgaria in 2011, which is no small feat considering best-seller lists in the country are almost always dominated not by indigenous literature, but by a slightly schizophrenic gathering of translated literature of varying merit. To give an example, fellow best-selling books in fiction that year included The Forty Rules of Love by Elif Şafak (2010), and The Bastard of Istanbul (2007) by the same author, as well as, perhaps, the inevitable: Fifty Shades of Grey (2011). This points to the Bulgarian reader’s eclectic taste: the Dumas, Dostoevsky, and Remarque of her childhood paving the way for an enduring historical and intellectual thirst followed by mired fascination with an exotic, far-away America via its spiritual junk food.

As a writer, Gospodinov travels freely—physically and metaphysically—attempting to grasp the national fascination with chujbina or “foreign country,” along with the necessity of revisiting another quite foreign thing: your own childhood. The metaphor he utilizes in The Physics of Sorrow for doing the latter is a child Minotaur, necessary perhaps only for the natural resistance of Bulgarians for self-introspection.

In his native country, Gospodinov (whose last name essentially means “Sir,” giving him an innately superior status) is a literary star, celebrated for many reasons, one of which is his translation into over twenty languages. This kind of success doesn’t come without detractors. He has received death threats for essays he’s written and many decry what they perceive to be the contrived mass-hysteria that follows the release of his books in Bulgaria. But Gospodinov’s writing speaks for itself; it is effortlessly relatable and that, in turn, translates.

If the author’s Natural Novel (2005) was a novel of beginnings, then The Physics of Sorrow can be read as a query into the riddle of beginnings and endings; a narratively deconstructed account of life that is part metaphor, part memoir, part metaphysical labyrinth. It’s filled with episodic Bulgarian vignettes, contemplations on the meaning of alienation and memory, and cautious optimism about the collective conscience and the power of imagining the world anew.

Physics is gently human and not showy, masterful in its simplicity yet laugh-out-loud funny. Consider the author recalling attending a writer’s open-casket funeral:

“While alive, he had hay fever. Now he was lying there, piled with flowers, looking as if he would start sneezing any minute. An orchid was sticking its tip right up his nose. But clearly he was already cured.”

The image of the handful of unofficial mistresses (there is an official one, too) also in attendance and in the corner, with their ice-blue hair, is perhaps familiar to anyone who grew up in 1980s Bulgaria. But the humor, the absurdity of the scene, is universal despite the specificity of the locale.

The novel’s translation, for which Angela Rodel was awarded a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, renders Gospodinov’s poetic writing faithfully and elegantly into English, and, like the work from which it is interpreted, it is injected with gentle optimism. At one point, the author recalls hearing a story from a friend, Miriam, who, for a time, lives with a Buddhist. The Buddhist attempts to instill in her the notion that life is sacred and not to be disrupted. In this case, it means she cannot lay a finger on an ever-increasing swarm of cockroaches that invades their apartment. In Bulgarian, Gospodinov writes that Miriam accepts this roachy existence for an entire year because she is in love and she is, therefore, turpeliva, the direct translation of the word being “patient” or “uncomplaining” or “enduring.” But Rodel takes it a step further and goes for “magnanimous.” Humor is again a crucial component at the end of the episode: after the magnanimity wears off, Miriam grabs the roach spray, and to the devastation of the Buddhist—curiously, out to work at that precise moment—commits “genocide.” But the Buddhist too falls off his sanctimonious horse: he’s already taken another lover.

If stories like the cockroach saga revel in a sort of geographic haziness, the melancholy of socialist reality making frequent, subtly heartbreaking stops puts the geography immediately into focus. There are the images of the englassed balconies turned into kitchens that adorn every apartment building—that attempt to squeeze the most out of your allotted square footage; the starving years, when instead of eating, Gospodinov and his girlfriend read a cook book; the electricity regime in the ’90s (think two hours on, two hours off); the stretches without hot water (an old Bulgarian joke has Electricity and Water running into each other at the entrance of an apartment building. “After you,” says Electricity, “I’m only here for an hour.” “No, after you, I insist,” says Water, “I’m only going to the first floor.”).

For those coming of age in newly democratic Bulgaria, the promise of something better, something new often came and went. Writes Gospodinov, “Back in the day, everybody was always saying: it’s too late for us, but lets hope the kids will live a different life. The mantra of late socialism. I now realize that it was my turn to utter the same line.”

But the book does not suffer from a martyr complex. Its multi-generational appeal exists precisely because it can make fun of itself without fatal insult.

Says Hristo Karastoyanov, a fellow writer also from the city of Yambol (and whose book, The Same Night Awaits Us All: Diary of a Novel, I’m currently translating): “Last summer in Bulgaria, the president did a one-day, country-wide public reading initiative. I was asked to help organize the Yambol event in the square, and the whole day had an air of contrivance, except for one thing: A girl, no more than 14 years old, got up to read a page from her favorite book. And it was a page from The Physics of Sorrow.” No one told her to read that, she had chosen it, and to me, it said a lot.”

With the English translation of “Physics entering the world, Gospodinov is now in the position of being able to push Bulgarian literature if not to the forefront, then at least meaningfully forward. His appeal is genuine, infectiously transcending boundaries both physical and figurative.

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