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Prize-winning Bulgarian writer brings 'The Physics of Sorrow' to U.S. readers


Bulgarian writer Georgi Gospodinov won the 2023 International Booker Prize for his book, Time Shelter. An English version of The Physics of Sorrow, an earlier novel, has just been published in the United States.

Toward the end of this brilliant book, Gospodinov considers the concept of "weight" in physics. He writes, "The past, sorrow, literature — only these three weightless whales interest me." This complex sentence provides a summation of Gospodinov's fascinating literary explorations.

Elegantly translated by Angela Rodel, The Physics of Sorrow is a fragmented novel that coheres into a remarkable, thought-provoking whole. It is a winding labyrinth through Bulgarian communism, art, literature, history, the personal past, love, sorrow, and so much more.

In epigraphs, Gospodinov invokes Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges and Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa, members of the tradition in which Gospodinov writes. At the same time, he quotes St. Augustine, Gustave Flaubert, and his own fictional character Gaustine, signaling to readers not to take anything too seriously, but also to consider the weight of each word.

Gospodinov frames his novel around the myth of the Minotaur, a monster with a bull's head and a man's body, captive in an underground Labyrinth on Crete. There are multiple variations of the myth, and multiple explanations of how the Minotaur came into being. Gospodinov parses through many of them, like a gourmet cook selecting produce. He considers how aspects of this myth are imprinted on modernity — man behaving as beast and society "othering" those who are different.

Gospodinov's narration is fluid. Sometimes he writes in first person, sometimes a boy/man named Georgi (like the author) narrates, sometimes the narration is in third person. We get insights into Gospodinov's reading and writing life. "At five I learned to read, by six it was already an illness ... literary bulimia." He leaves a blank space on a page, saying it was written with invisible fruit ink. "What, so you don't see anything? ...If only I could write a whole novel in such ink."

If there is a plot, it is composed of the arcs of several lives, including a person like the author himself and a person who may be like his grandfather. We get characters' memories from World War I, and World War II, which could be Gospodinov's own family stories.

The Physics of Sorrow, however, is not a novel to read for plot. It is a book that raises vexing questions about the human condition, and travels down labyrinthine digressions about topics that consume us — life, death, social woes, war, peace, old age, youth. And perhaps the creation of literature, above all.

For Gospodinov, time is an artifice. Present, past, and future slide around like pieces on a chessboard. A section called "The Chiffonier of Memory," exemplifies Gospodinov's technique. Here, the narrator — perhaps the author — is a journalist writing about Bulgarian WWII cemeteries. He travels through Serbia on the roads his grandfather "trudged on foot through the mud in the winter of 1944," before stopping in Harkány, Hungary to interview a man who lives in a house where his grandfather was billeted during the war.

The man comments on his mother, an old woman present at the interview, as an occasion to explore memory: "Her memory is a chiffonier, I can sense her opening the long locked-up drawers ... she has to wade through more than fifty years, after all."

The man is ill at ease with his mother's silence. He asks her something. "She turns her head slightly, without taking her eyes off me [the narrator]. It could pass as a tick, a negative response, or part of her own internal monologue." The man notes that since his mother had a stroke, her memory is not all there.

But the narrator is having a different experience. He ignores his interviewee's comments, certain that the woman recognizes him because he looks just like his grandfather.

The narrator jumps through time to describe how beautiful this woman was as a young woman, and how much his grandfather loved her. Even though the narrator was not there, he describes what she looked like and what she wore, projecting his grandfather's love affair — which may or may not have happened — as his own.

Even though the narrator and the old woman have "no language in which we can share everything," her eyes say in "impeccable Bulgarian: hello, thank you, bread, wine ... I continue in Hungarian: szép (beautiful) ... as if passing a secret message from my dead grandfather."

Who has actually experienced this love affair and who is the narrator? The passage may read as linear story, until the reader stops to consider the enormous gap between the time of the interview and the time of the love affair.

The book purports to be about sorrow, and it is. Sorrow laces through life in many guises — grief, abandonment, regret, guilt. For this reader, Gospodinov's multi-faceted considerations of human (and mythical) sorrow are reason enough to read the book.

At one point, Gospodinov writes that he aspires to "keep a precise catalogue of everything." It feels like he has nearly succeeded with this innovative, captivating novel.

Martha Anne Toll is a DC based writer and reviewer. Her debut novel, Three Muses, won the Petrichor Prize for Finely Crafted Fiction and was shortlisted for the Gotham Book Prize. Her second novel, Duet for One, is due out May 2025.

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