Bulgarian writer Georgi Gospodinov’s “The Physics of Sorrow” unites formal experimentation with emotional resonance in a compelling exploration of how and why humans tell stories. Through an endlessly inventive series of playful, moving retellings of the Minotaur myth, Gospodinov recounts his family’s history and his own autobiography. At times the narrative is frustratingly complex, less a linear plot than a maze of allusions and digressions. Yet the deep feeling and the specificity of Gospodinov’s writing render the story consistently engaging despite its many twists and turns.
In Greek mythology, the Minotaur was a creature with the head of a bull and the body of a man, who terrorized the Athenians by eating several of their youths every year; the hero Theseus famously found and killed this carnivore, in the depths of a labyrinth in Crete. The novel deconstructs and reimagines the birth, life, and murder of the Minotaur, who is sympathetically presented as a lonely and abandoned child. Gospodinov analyzes interpretations of the myth in the works of Ovid, Virgil, and Dante, presents the monster as real person whom his grandfather once saw exhibited at a circus, and even explores how he himself, living in a basement apartment in communist Bulgaria in the 1980s, has come to resemble the creature. The motif of the labyrinth built to contain the Minotaur also recurs throughout the novel in intriguing ways: Gospodinov ruminates on the mazelike structures of the human brain, of cities, and of books themselves.
The fragmentary and disjointed form also gives the writing a labyrinthine complexity. In some ways, Gospodinov’s novel reads like an encyclopedia of the techniques and preoccupations of postmodern fiction.The narrator at one point describes his work as “a book containing every kind and genre. From monologue through Socratic dialogue to epos in hexameter, from fairytales through treatises to lists. From high antiquity to slaughterhouse instructions.” Both this multiplicity of genres and the narrator’s consciousness about literary technique challenge conventional definitions of fiction. The work is divided into short sections with titles ranging from the trivial “Four Seconds From the ’90s” to the profound “Death Is a Cherry Tree That Ripens Without Us.” Frequent shifts from first to third person and between the memories and thoughts of different characters render the narrator impossible to identify. The novel’s allusiveness adds yet another layer of complexity—the narrator, for instance, meets teenage girls who are “Lolitas, without having read ‘Lolita.’” This frequent use of referencing draws attention to the ways in which any perceptions and interpretations of the novel are structured by other stories. The success of “The Physics of Sorrow” lies not in its coherence as a narrative, but in its thoughtful exploration of how narratives are constructed and understood.
Despite playing with the conventions of fiction, Gospodinov successfully avoids sacrificing meaning to formal experimentation for its own sake. In a description that certainly fits his own work, Gospodinov writes that “[s]ome books need to be equipped with Ariadne’s thread. The corridors are constantly intertwining, crisscrossing one another.” Through the twisting path of Gospodinov’s novel runs a constant thread of compelling emotional intensity. Though narrated in brief snippets of memory, Gospodinov’s retelling of his great-grandmother’s abandonment of his grandfather, then three years old, loses none of its searing immediacy: When his grandfather realizes that he is alone, “the fear wells up, filling him, just like when they fill the little pitcher at the well, the water surges, pushing the air out and overflowing.” The melancholy—the double sense of loss and being lost—that pervades the adult Gospodinov’s wanderings through Europe is no less vividly evoked. The scent of lilies as he strolls through Rouen for the first time recalls to him “a memory of my grandma’s house, the lilies at the back of the yard…. Everything seen is projected somewhere there, in the lost country of childhood. The ideal city lies there…and in all of our later wanderings, we can only note its likenesses.”
Gospodinov’s language in itself is also compelling. In his work, even the most mundane experiences become revelations. He describes waking up from an afternoon nap and finding that “the room, lit up by the autumn sun, has come alive. One ray passes right through the massive glass ashtray on the table, breaking the light down into its constituent colors. Even the long-dead, mummified fly next to it looks exquisite and sparkles like a forgotten earring.” Gospodinov juxtaposes the grotesque and the beautiful in a passage that is at once concrete and transcendent. Like the sunlight described in this passage, his words have the power to transfigure the commonplace into the sublime. At one point, the narrator declares, “In the small and the insignificant—that’s where life hides, that’s where it builds its nest.” For all its abstract, cerebral play with story structure and its exploration of grand myths, the novel also exalts the beauty of the specific, of the trivial details of everyday life. Moments of lyricism, of clarity and enchantment, punctuate the narrative like pearls strung along a thread.
Both an intellectual game and a very human story, “The Physics of Sorrow” captivates. If at times the novel’s postmodern experimentation seems self-consciously clever and its plot confusing, the insights offered by its deconstruction of myth and its exploration of family, memory, and loss are worth the effort required to unravel its tangled skein.
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