Thursday, May 18, 2017

Book 170, Bulgaria: "The Physics of Sorrow" by Georgi Gospodinov

I had a few options for Bulgaria: the 1981 Nobel Prize-winning Elias Canetti (who didn't write about Bulgaria much, as far as I could tell); or Ivan Vazov, whose 1888 novel Under the Yoke is considered the greatest classic of Bulgarian literature.

However, I ultimately decided on someone more current, who also happened to be stocked in the National Library of Singapore: the poet Georgi Gosponidov. Surely, I thought, reading a book of poetry could be speedily done, putting me back on track for my round-the-world trek.

Alas, the book the library had 283 pages. And it's experimental. Is it a novel or a memoir or both? I dunno.

What I do know is that it's good. Gospodinov looks back at his life—he was born in 1968, stayed in village basements as a child because his dad earned too little on his veterinarian's salary, and witnessed as a young man the fall of Communist Bulgaria and the birth of a new globalised, capitalist nation—and he tries to find in his biography, his father's biography, his grandfather's biography, a meaning for the loneliness and sorrow that have haunted him all his life.

And in that basement he finds the Minotaur. A myth of the Greeks—who are of course neighbours to the Bulgarians—and who was not just a monster but also an abandoned child, a freak left to wander through a darkened labyrinth. He latches on to his grandfather's memory of a funfair full of sideshows in 1925, including (fictionally?) a young, abused Minotaur; he sees innocence in that vegetarian head and his lustful mother Pasiphaë who forsook him and the pages of classical authors who never once gave him words or empathy.

(Empathy is key to all this: he claims that as a child he immediately would go into spells where he would empathise so much with characters in stories, with voices, with animals, that he would tunnel into their lives and it would always be a long time before he could find his way back to his own body. Catatonic. Stopped happening when he was a teenager, which he regrets: not growing up and healing, but growing old and losing a special gift, a faculty of the imagination.)

His life's related in a nonlinear fashion, shifting from his meeting with his grandfather's Hungarian lover from World War II to his memories of burying time capsules and playing cowboys and Indians in the 1980s with the neighbourhood kids (did you know the East Germans made Westerns, but always made out the Indians to be the good guys?) and how the nostalgia for that has faded today, and his own flight from Bulgaria in 1995 after his countrymen attacked him for writing an op-ed about them being, according to a survey, the saddest place in the world, and wandering through the obscure cities of Europe, writers' festival after festival, his daughter being born, and himself growing older and foreseeing his death through his father's death...

Life as a labyrinth. And himself either the Minotaur or Theseus, determined to slay the monster.

It's strange how a writer's story of success ends up being one of sorrow as well (true to the title he considers the physics of it all, the infinite possibilities of the universe, God as a boson or a neutrino). And we've seen this strange way what's externally a good life is summed up with regret in VS Naipaul's A House for Mr Biswas, but the strangeness of this all seems uniquely Eastern European, a thing of Kafka or Gogol or Herta Müller.

The Eastern Europeans really have had an inheritance of the bizarre. I wish to learn from them. But alas, this is the last book from the region we'll be doing.

On to Southern Europe next!

Representative quote: It hurts right here, something down on the left, maybe it's my appendix.
Stop with the self-diagnoses, if you please. The appendix is on the right. There's nothing that could be hurting there on the left.
What do you mean nothing?
Just that. There's nothing there.
Well, it's precisely that nothing that's hurting me.

Next book: Hesiod's Theogony and Works and Days, from Greece.

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