Georgi Gospodinov, 2011
Translated from the Bulgarian by Angela Rodel
“The physics of sorrow – initially the classical physics thereof – was the subject of my pursuits for several years. Sorrow, like gases and vapors, does not have its own shape or volume, but rather takes on the shape and volume of the container or space it occupies.” (250)
The last few books I’ve read have left me less than inspired and I was beginning to grow apathetic towards reading in general. I’d like to think that my disappointments were due to several life events that have been keeping me busy and distracting me from devoted, focused reading, but in reviewing my criticisms of Annihilation, 10:04, and The Story of My Teeth, I’m convinced that these books were disappointing for concrete, valid reasons inherent in the style and plot structure of those books and not just my own distracted perspective. As I had been growing concerned that my reading pursuits were taking a turn toward a region of unending disappointment I was pleased by the uniquely intoxicating world depicted in the pages of The Physics of Sorrow. Although the title may be slightly melodramatic, this book should not be categorized as depressive. There are a lot of fun things going on in this book and the title shouldn’t discourage the reader from exploring its labyrinthine exploration of ideas.
I’ve opened this post with the passage above that gives mention to the gaseous, transient state of sorrow as an indication of the fluidity of ideas of emotion, identity and metaphor explored in these pages. The success and allure of Gospindinov’s novel doesn’t solely rely upon broad philosophical statements about life; this book’s true charm lies in its ability to playfully weave through different stories told from different perspectives and time in a cohesive and readable style that captivates the reader.
The central story circles around the myth of half-man half-bull Minotaur, the bestial offspring of Pasiphaë, the greek hero Minos’s wife who was orphaned in the labyrinth to become a monster. This story touches upon the significance of myth as a tool to distort man’s view of the world: the misunderstood orphan becomes the feared monster. This central theme is at the root of the narrator’s ability to travel through time and relive the lives of his ancestors, rediscovering the lost connection between his grandfather’s illegitimate offspring when he was a Hungarian prisoner of war during World War One, or his father’s lifetime living in poor basements in post-war Bulgaria, or his own strange disconnection to modern day technology while living in Paris. All of these stories from different slants of time are twists and turns through the labyrinth of story-telling and ultimately reveal the importance and power of story, or myth, as a deep rooted necessity for human identity.
To get a sense at what I am trying to convey, consider the following reflection told from the lense of the narrator’s grandfather’s observations of the gravestones in an ancient cemetery:
“What happened to the names after their owner died? … Words are our first teacher in death. The first sign of the parting between bodies and their names. The strangest thing about that cemetery was that the names repeated themselves. I stood for a long time in front of a headstone with my name, freed up by someone who had used it for only three years.” (51)
Ideas of identity, loss, and timelessness are infectious within this book and speak volumes about the potential of literature as a tool that transcends a mere function as a source of entertainment. The narrative that weaves through multiple perspectives from mythological musings of the story of the Minotaur to World War One to present day reflections on the influence of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Spiderman, and the PlayStation aren’t just gimmicky experimentalism for the sake of experimentalism. This is a profoundly enriching book that uses narrative as a tool to explore ideas of lineage, identity, abandonment, violence, and loneliness, as well as the over-arching ideas of mythology and Platonic ideals. Ultimately, this books is focused on the universal ideas of the sublime and transcendence and their relationship to the everyday:
“Even if you … haven’t heard of Kant, or if you inhabit the eternal, illiterate fields of anonymous villages and towns of empty days and nights, the sublime will reveal itself to you in your own language. As smoke from a chimney on a winter morning, as a slice of blue sky, as a cloud that reminds you of something from another world, as a pile of buffalo shit. The sublime is everywhere.” (168)
Why is this important? Why is this significant? So much human energy is spent on the ideals that are valuable only from a certain perspective. Our place in time, our moment in history, our mark on this earth, is momentary. The human belief, or rather, the western philosophical belief in the significance of individuality is brushed aside when framed within the scope of human pre-history. The importance of human achievement is fleeting and ironically discredits the significance of the individual:
“We live in houses that will continue to live on even after we die. We go to cathedrals, where long lines of people and generations who are no longer with us have trod, as if on Judgement Day. All of this tells you: you pass on but we remain. We’ve buried plenty before you, we’ll take care of the ones you’ve sired as well. Think up at least one good reason why that which is built of stone should last longer than that built of flesh. I don’t see any particular point of justice in that. We can only wonder what sense of time and the eternal the ones who came before us had, in the dark of the night in the primeval, living in flimsy huts, outliving their flimsy huts, outliving their hearths, moving from place to place, measuring out their lives in days and nights, in lighted and extinguished fires …. they truly lived forever and they died at thirty.” (172)
The Physics of Sorrow is a vapor that intoxicates, filling the void of literary potential. This book speaks so many volumes that it is unspeakable.
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