A Myth with a Twist (Part V, Pgs 151-178)
Last week, Chad, Brian, and special guest Tom Flynn had a particularly boisterous discussion of Part V of The Physics of Sorrow that was as insightful towards the literature at hand as much as it was to learn sick burns for your friends with weak March Madness brackets. But between the trash talk and discussion of oysters, there were a few insights that I wanted to carry forward into this week’s expanded post. At some point, Tom mentioned that Gospodinov has trained his reader by this point in the novel to know how to get through it and that idea stuck with me. This week, we’ll be looking at how well trained we are as Gospodinov feeds us the myth, again, but with a twist, yet again.
“And there’s the switch. The tiniest of switches”
Throughout last week’s Two Month Review blog post (and my raving scribbles through my copy of the book and my personal notebook) I expressed an interest in understanding The Physics of Sorrow as a spiral. I’ve been tempted at times to call the sections circular, or at least calling our experience of going from section to section circular, but it’s not entirely cyclical, where it would run over the same subject matter or stories. The circle doesn’t fit because we aren’t getting the same experiences in each section—we’re not just dealing with a slight variation on the played out Epic of Gilgamesh. The spiral form accounts for the overlapping subject matter—embedding, Minotaur, labyrinth, children, abandonment, etc.—with a developing narrative that lacks narrative repetition. So while we keep encountering these themes, we keep encountering them in different positions, at different times, in different ways, with different people. The spiral form also accounts for the philosophical treatises that we’re met with in each section that further complicate the myths and ideas at the heart of _The Physics of Sorrow. “The Green Box” continues as a testament to the spiral.
The section opens with “The Ear of the Labyrinth,” which beautifully reimagines a tragedy that took place in the town of Tafalla, Spain—an agricultural town known for their meat industry, I’d like to add. Along our spiral, the piece opens with an article describing an incident during 2010, when a bull, during a bullfight, leapt into the audience and injured 40 before it was eventually shot. While the opening is written in a standard journalistic style, Gospodinov embeds into the bull’s memory:
“[. . .] it turned out to be one of those exceptional events that launched me back into that forgotten “embedding” . . . Something I haven’t experienced in years.
As we learned in the previous section, embedding—the condition that escapes me as much as it escaped Gospodinov—became harder to experience with age. But as we learn now, particular things, like this event, drag him into memories again. And there’s more discussion of embedding within this section, but it’s not exactly what we’re used to. Through some of these stories, he performs some proxy embedding, where he deeply imagines the experiences of other creatures.
In “Through a Lamb’s Ear” he speculates about Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea being told from the perspective from a fish, twisting the classic line from the book to:
A marlin can be destroyed but not defeated.
Additionally, he includes a short and sweet snippet of dialog between two unidentified entities, who discuss history through plants:
“The history of the world can be written from the viewpoint of a cat, an orchid, or a pebble. Or lamb’s ear.”
“What’s lamb’s ear?”
“And do you think we would figure in a history of the world written by lamb’s ear?”
“I don’t know. Do you think lamb’s ear figures in the history of the world written by people?”
This piece introduces us to what embedding could look like to an older Gospodinov reflecting on his lost ability and applying it to new situations. Before we would have gotten an expansive account of the marlin, and its life, and the battle with Santiago. Instead, we have a reserved reflection on speculation on such a possibility. But we do get another clear moment of embedding in “The Green Box,” aside from the bull looking for his ancestral mother.
With “The Minotaur’s Dream” readers experience, well, a first-person account of a Minotaur’s dream. In his dream, the Minotaur has become a fully human child:
I dream that I’m beautiful. Not exactly beautiful, but inconspicuous. That’s what it means to be beautiful, to be like everyone else. My head feels light. My eyes are on the front of my face. I have a nose, rather than nostrils. I have human skin, thin human skin. I walk down the street and no one notices me. Now that’s happiness—no one noticing me. It’s a happy dream.
And the Minotaur spends much of his day going throughout town, interacting delicately with townsfolk, if noticed at all. This all changes as night falls. As darkness consumes the sky, the Minotaur is slowly dragged back to his reality:
I can feel my jaw elongating, my skull growing heavy and hard, but I don’t want to hurt him. Thankfully the dream is coming to an end, since the situation is getting pretty desperate. That’s the moment in which dreams tear apart.
And with that he’s returned to the darkness of his labyrinth. This entire piece was written in the first person, just as previous moments of embedding. Only, here, Gospodinov has left us with no clue to how he was able to enter the dream, as he did in earlier embedding, especially considering the absence of consistent embedding as an adult.
Some Twists on the Labyrinth
Returning to the opening story for a moment takes us, yet again, through the Labyrinth that we’re familiar with from the other sections. As we follow Gospodinov’s embedding into the bull in Tafalla:
An amphitheater, of course, is a labyrinth. One of the most commonly found circular labyrinths, made of concentric circles intersected by transverse corridors.
It’s certainly a space that I wouldn’t consider labyrinthine at first thought, as I’m first dragged back to the intense lighting that floods event spaces like these. But, just as the bull here, my mind recedes for a moment: walking from the parking lot to the amphitheatre (stadium in my particular memory, but I feel the comparison is sustained), or being the sole member of your group that has to use the bathroom or procure concessions in the middle of an important inning, and you’re left to wander the halls alone—lights flickering alongside all other dramatic effects—turning corners that seem like you just passed them, perpetually. And just like that, trained well by the reading, as Tom noted during the podcast, I’m following Gospodinov as he transforms my familiar to his. Through each modification of the myth, we’ve learned to be complicit through each modification, agreeing to suspend our disbelief because everything is written so tightly and we’re inundated with variations to the point of accepting change—and sorrow—as the new normal. So for us, the readers, the amphitheater is now a labyrinth—a prison.
And this space transforms the bull, according to Gospodinov, as:
The bull lifted its gaze and recognized the Labyrinth—the ancestral home of his great-grandfather, the Minotaur. And since animals have no sense of time (just as children do not), the Bull saw his ancestral home and recognized the Minotaur within himself.
But this transformation of a space into a labyrinth occurs, with a twist, later in the section, as Gospodinov and his wife are expecting a child. “The End of the Minotaurs” stands as a beautiful reinterpretation of the myth we’ve gotten so accustomed to as readers:
Someone’s walking around inside me. Someone’s gotten lost in my belly. That’s what she said one winter afternoon, as we were sitting quietly in the room, trying to hear the snow piling up outside. It sounded beautiful and timeless. Lying back in the rocking chair, she had opened up Ancient Greek Myths and Legends and placed the book on top of the protruding oval of her belly, like a roof.
But as Gospodinov starts to ruminate of this reality, something strikes him. He starts to align the elements of his myths onto his life and is startled by the results:
That which was roaming around inside was not the Minotaur, but rather that which would kill him. Let’s call it “Theseus” for the sake of clarity. The umbilical cord is there inside like Ariadne’s thread. So then where is the Minotaur? The answer lay in the anxiousness of the inquiry. The Minotaur was me. Let’s turn that phrase around, so I can’t hide in its tail end. I was the Minotaur. Theseus—he, she, it (the gender doesn’t matter) – was coming to kill me with all the innocence of predestination. There was nowhere to hide, I could only meekly await his arrival.
Of course, Gospodinov, and his family, have all served as the minotaurs at particular points in their history—all trapped in their labyrinths, and subject to their own horrors—but now the labyrinth was a living person, his wife nevertheless, and in a kind of liberation (or new subjugation) his own flesh and blood is to be the hero in this new version of the myth. After all the time that Gospodinov spent locked in various labyrinths as the horrible Minotaur, he was now to face the hero that would slay him.
And it is this point that the bull in Tafalla leaps into the stands, people running in terror as he seeks his mother and his murderer, or at least a variant of him—the same point when Gospodinov looks into his vision of the future, sees the faces, and accepts the terms. But this angle of the myth is not the last that he twists in this section of the spiral.
Death by Another Face
The story in Tafalla hits us with another divergence from the typical narrative of the Minotaur in the Labyrinth. We already have a bull, we have a crowd for an audience, and, in this iteration, we have a faceless killer where there has typically been the blessed, handsome hero Theseus. Gospodinov writes:
But the myth is repeatable and the death of the Minotaur has to happen again. [. . .] Death catches up with him right when he seems to have caught sight of a familiar shoulder and locks of hair hurrying away. It’s the first time they kill him that way. From a distance. Without a sword or a spear. Without seeing his killer’s face.
Gospodinov has taken a myth, made it more tragic by humanizing the ‘monster’ and, now, goes a step further by taking the myth and truly making it modern by having this contemporary Theseus kill the enthralled minotaur at a distance, with a rifle, without the two coming face to face.
But this faceless murder of those deemed animals is the truly modern face of slaughter, and Gospodinov addresses this voraciously. “Without a Face” creates a history to address the transition from face-to-face to faceless murders, starting with several mythic slayings and ending with the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
As an aside—from a craft standpoint—it’s important to note that many of these sections bleed into one another, like we’ve found a corner of the labyrinth that we handed guided our hands over before, or another length of the spiral that veers off at a slightly sharper angle than before—whatever metaphor you prefer. “The Ear of the Amphitheatre” ended, as mentioned above, “Without seeing his killer’s face[,]” while “Without a Face” ends with “No animal would do that[,]” in reference to an animal’s moral inability to commit faceless murder. Often enough, it’s difficult to name pieces, but this process and sequence of titling sections off of pertinent content from a previous section allows Gospodinov freedom to address a myriad of topics while still sustaining the individuality of the sections, and still connecting them beyond their order in the mostly static medium of a physical book. Well done, Georgi.
The next section is aptly titled “No Animal Would Do That” and catalogs, statistically and philosophically, the advent of modern day meat production. This slaughter is further used to introduce the cross-generational vegetarianism is Gospodinov’s family in “A Tale of the Vegetarian Man-Eater” and “On the Eating of Flesh.” This approach to vegetarianism and mass murder is fresh to us at this point in the book, as we’ve only had glancing mentions to either, whether the moment where public defender Gospodinov reminded us that bulls are herbivores or the massive die-offs of birds, bats, and bees, respectively.
So as we make our way through The Physics of Sorrow we continue to see Gospodinov’s plan unfold. We start the see the cohesion with the disjointed pieces, and the ability for an age old myth to continue to be refreshed, and for his skill to re-approach topics from a dizzying amount of angles. At this point, we’re more than halfway through the piece. As much as I want to suggest that we have a sense of what is going to come next, I can only comfortably predict on the direction we’re headed—everything else is up to myth.