A Brilliant Review of Georgi Gospodinov's "The Physics of Sorrow"
I’ll start by giving you the money shot from the review (at least in my opinion):
But Gospodinov is playing for higher stakes than the opportunity to be the Bulgarian Jonathan Safran Foer. He’s interested in the idea of a radical, trans-human empathy not for what it allows him to do in terms of storytelling, but in the way that it makes the entire world a potentially boundless repository of lived experience, a universal archive of the senses, of emotions, and of narrative.
That first sentence is totally going on the front of any future Gospodinov book. And makes me very happy given recent conversations I’ve had about Foer.
Anyway, the real focus of Mitchell’s review is on the archive and the role this plays in Physics.
The Physics of Sorrow, the second novel by Bulgarian writer Georgi Gospodinov, is obsessed by archives, collections, museums, and time capsules, by the traces of lost time captured in texts, pictures, objects, and ephemera, and by the ways in which these traces return to unsettle the present. It dances, too, around that peculiarly archival dilemma: whether to collect everything, centralise it, and set it in amber for posterity, or to throw it all away, live in the present moment, and give the past over to entropy and dispersal. No such proposal as Orbán’s was made in Gospodinov’s native country—since 2011, the records of the Bulgarian Committee for State Security have been open to the public—but Gospodinov’s interest in how history is written and fabricated, suppressed and unearthed, permeates his work to the roots. [. . .]
If Gospodinov wasn’t far too clever a writer to be pinned down on anything so vulgarly obvious as a straight-up allegory, you’d have to say that the myth of the Minotaur is his main vehicle for thinking aloud about the archive. As we’ll see, that’s not just ‘the archive’ as a repository of textual or material evidence, but ‘the archive’ in a more abstract sense: the accumulated records of narrative, of experience, of the individual and collective memory. In Gospodinov’s telling, the Minotaur is a victim, unable to choose the manner of his own conception, so helplessly malformed. His interment in the labyrinth signifies authority’s practice of disposing of the evidence of its own monstrosity. He’s the secret police file in the closed archive, the madwoman in the attic, the spectre of a repressed history that haunts the above-ground world. [. . .]
In its recursions and digressions, in its play of random association and apparently haphazard accumulation, Gospodinov’s novel itself recalls the texture of an archive. In reading it, you’re pleasurably pulled apart by the tension between form and formlessness, between aggregation and dispersal. You can begin to believe that you’re performing something like the work of historical research from primary sources: trawling through the disordered residue of the past and burrowing, through all the blind alleys and sudden, disorienting recontextualisations, toward some kernel of recoverable truth, some intimation of what really happened.
This is one of the best ways of approaching this book, and will likely give you a way of thinking about it as a whole after being pleasantly dragged along its various side streets and digressive stories. It’s an incredible novel, one of those rare books that’s as entertaining as it is meaningful. (And is available for purchase now!)