The Physics of Sorrow by Georgi Gospodinov (trans. Angela Rodel). $14.95, 283 pp. Open Letter.
In judging contemporary literature, much attention should be given by readers to the subject of theme. This is because the theme of a novel or story will either contain the author’s original idea about how they conceive of human life, or (in the case of the far greater number of lesser works) it will entirely lack any new perspective on experience. It is a book’s theme—almost as a conceptual guiding force—that will demonstrate an author’s ability to put into words new information about the way in which we perceive the world around us. Because a well-composed theme will bring into the world new ideas—that is, a common truth of human nature hitherto unexpressed—the profound work of art will nearly always reveal its greatness through an almost spirit-like guiding idea behind the work. Thus, what Orwell called “good bad books”—the Sherlock Holmes stories and others—were essentially well-written and entertaining works of literature lacking a theme, which without a realistic portrayal of human action under duress will reveal no fundamental truth about human culture.
Indeed, a book’s thematic relationship to truth is also the reason literature cannot live when it fully subjects itself to either propaganda or the status quo. Firstly, the thematic ideas behind a work must be open-ended: a book’s theme is not its thesis; it can claim no superiority to the world in which it is produced. A good writer is not trying to unequivocally or scientifically prove a point but merely to observe human behavior and see the truthful end results of that behavior.This is because an author has no control over the way human beings act, and if authors tries to direct their characters in a way that they would like them to be or in order to prove a preconceived notion, the narrative depiction of a particular world will fall apart instantly. The author must detail the genuine actions of how human beings behave, not shape his or her characters to the sickly form of the world as it would like itself to be. In Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, for instance, the author has perceived in his own observations of society that a truly just person will find no reward in an unjust world. Anyone who has spent time examining society in its real state would find this concept to be undoubtedly true. Thus as Jude dies among the sepulchre-like buildings of a thinly veiled depiction of 19th-century Oxford, the plot is subservient to the truth and the theme of the work. It illustrates the idea behind the work in order to tell us something about the world in which we have all found ourselves.
By the standard of an author’s handling of complex thematic ideas, Georgi Gospodinov’s The Physics of Sorrow, beautifully translated by Angela Rodel,is an excellent book. Gospodinov takes the conceptual framework within his novel as the ability of literature to overcome the restrictions of memory. Taking major cues about this subject from both Borges and Sebald (see Gospodinov’s extensive use of diagrams and photographs throughout the text), the author explores memory through a tightly woven set of fantastic experiences among the ever-changing society of Bulgaria in the 20th and early 21st centuries, and does so profoundly.
The novel centers on a narrator who describes himself as an “empath,” that is, someone who is able to access the entire set of memories of those close to him, but whose power fades as they grow older. “I remember being born as a rose bush, a partridge, as ginkgo biloba, a snail, a cloud in June (that memory is brief), a purple autumnal crocus near Halensee, an early blooming cherry frozen by a late April snow, as snow freezing a hoodwinked cherry tree . . .” the narrator says, suggesting that he has a form of memory that is not subject to the limitations most human beings face. Later, the narrator notes that, “The aging of an empath is a strange and painful process. The corridors toward others and their stories, which once were open, now turn out to be walled up. House arrest in your own body.” Gospodinov is creating a literary game akin to Borges’s infinite library, in that he is calling into question the reliability of memory and the creative spirit through an illustration of its limitations.
In this dream-like scenario, the narrator might, as a child, explore a thread of his father’s past experience by following a thread of memory into its origins. As an adult, the narrator (now closed-off from those around him) will explore the neighborhoods of his childhood, noting the effect of time on them. Indeed, the narrator likens himself to a Minotaur; instead of haunting the labyrinth of myth, however, this supernatural being haunts the labyrinths of memory and time: shifting perspective of events over the course of his lifetime (as well as the lifetimes of others), the narrator creates a portrait of his home country as it struggles to determine its identity between the societal shifts of the Communist coup of 1944 and the push to democracy in the late 1980s and early 1990s and beyond. His powers of memory seem to mirror both his own growth into adulthood, and Bulgaria’s historical and cultural shifts within the narrator’s family’s lifetimes.
Indeed, if the aims of the narrator in exploring memory seem synonymous with the act of writers exploring cultural memory, this is no coincidence: what Gospodinov achieves through this narrative act is to create a synthesis between the novel’s storyline and the process by which writers catalogue the memories of their culture. If Gospodinov’s narrator in his youth is a magical-realist illustration of the impossibility of truly “knowing” another person, and his narrator in later life is an illustration of the desire to recount one’s own memories, then Gospodinov himself is a very real explorer and record-keeper of memory, since he simultaneously encompasses both these roles as the author of the novel. Here, writing is in a sense a form of memory that the individual cannot obtain on their own, and which can only be provided by the mutual understanding of others that is provided by literature. Indeed, Gospodinov metaphorically describes the idea of a book designed to carry the ideas of humankind forward, a kind of Noah’s Ark of memory:
Let me write, write, write, let me record and preserve, let me be like Noah’s ark, not me, but this book. Only the book is eternal, only its covers shall rise above the waves, only the beasts inside, between its pages swarming with life, will survive. And when they see the new land, they will go forth and multiply.
Indeed, the novel’s title and reference to physics refers to the effect of observation on physical phenomena. As the narrator notes:
One of the most mindboggling things in the physics of elementary particles is how important the very act of observation is on their behavior. According to the Copenhagen interpretation, as early as the 1920s quanta act like particles only when we observe them. The rest of the time, hidden from our gaze, they are part of a scattered and supposedly disinterested wave, in which we don’t know exactly what’s going on. Everything there is possible, unforeseeable and variable. But once they sense we’re watching them, they instantaneously start acting as we expect them to, orderly and logically [. . .] The world is the way we know it to be from the old textbooks only because (or when) it is under observation.
Just as physical phenomena may be changed by the mere fact of observation, in other words, the past is defined by our ability to observe it. Each time we gaze into the past, Gospodinov seems to suggest, we create it anew. We long for objectivity in the world, but what we are given is an infinitely subjective position from which to view the universe and the time that surrounds us.
At its core, The Physics of Sorrow is filled with these illuminating treatises on memory. Indeed, casual asides and strange explorations of cultural oddities begin to take on greater import when the reader considers that Gospodinov is actually addressing his own concepts of the way in which human culture defines itself. Exploring the trend in the years 1999 and 2000 for creating “time capsules,” for example, Gospodinov’s narrator is fascinated by the degree to which human beings grapple with their own limited memories and lifespans. What is a time capsule, the narrator seems to suggest, except a will to extend our memories beyond our lifetime? Is the artist’s desire for posterity driven by the same desire for an understanding by a future age? Is Gospodinov’s novel itself merely a time capsule to convey the author’s memories? These questions are, rightly, left open-ended, and it is to the author’s credit that he does not condescend to try to answer these queries to his readers.
Conversely, the weaknesses in Gospodinov’s text come mainly through two structural problems: firstly, the long digressions on subjects illustrative of the nature of memory (long descriptions of the history of the Minotaur in myth, for example)—what the author refers to as “side corridors” in the labyrinth of memory—can and do bring the narrative to a standstill; secondly, the profundity of Gospodinov’s subject matter is undercut by the lightness and humor of his prose. The book is genuinely funny, and this is not to say that humor in literature is a bad thing; however, for a book with such weighty concepts at its core, its narrative feels surprisingly superficial at times, as though the author is not delving fully into his subject matter to his full strength.
These are minor issues, however; certainly the state of contemporary literature would be a better one if there existed more authors of Gospodinov’s caliber and degree of honesty. Readers who tire of the endless parade of triteness of contemporary life and contemporary creative work will no doubt find solace in Gospodinov’s work, and that is a commendable feat on the author’s part. Gospodinov tells us the truth, and that is a rare and wonderful thing indeed.
Jordan Anderson is a writer and musician from Portland, Oregon. His work has also appeared in Music & Literature and World Literature Today.
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