Pete Mitchell reviews Georgi Gospodinov's The Physics of Sorrow

Translated from the Bulgarian by Angela Rodel (Open Letter Books, 2015)

In 2010, Viktor Orbán's right-wing Hungarian government floated a radical proposal: every citizen would be allowed to go into the archive of the ÁVH, the Communist-era secret police, and take their own file home to deal with as they pleased. This was a Gordian solution to a problem faced by most governments of the former Soviet bloc. In Hungary as elsewhere, the question of how to deal with the archives of the state agencies responsible for internal repression posed politically fraught questions of openness, accounting, transparency, and guilt. In Hungary as elsewhere, many of the members of post-Communist governments (including Orbán, by some accounts) had compromising ties to the old regime. And in Hungary as elsewhere, the wish to come to an accounting of the crimes, betrayals, and compromises of the Communist era was balanced by a fear that the destructive energies thus unleashed might prove fatal to the pragmatic accommodations by which the fragile post-Communist present was at least partly sustained: accommodations of selective memory, willed amnesia, and a reluctance to dig up corpses that might be better left safely buried.

Predictably enough, Orbán's plan drew howls of protest from historians. Removed from context, from their ability to corroborate and explain each other, the files would be useless. Individual culpability would be exposed at the price of destroying the evidence of collective guilt: you'd know who in your family or workplace had informed on you, but be unable to grasp any sense of the system that enabled or coerced such acts of betrayal. If carried through, the proposal would be an act of historicide masquerading as a libertarian gesture of restoring history to the individual subject.

But behind Orbán's obvious cynicism, there is still a seductive fantasy. If those files were mouldering in attics and desk drawers, that fantasy suggests, then maybe the experience of Communism itself would cease to be able to haunt the individual or national life; broken down into its constituent molecules and scattered to the wind, the archive's power to disrupt the present would be neutralised. Perhaps amnesia is best: the past you want to recover might not be the one you wanted at all.

The Physics of Sorrow, the second novel by Bulgarian writer Georgi Gospodinov, is obsessed by archives, collections, museums, and time capsules, by the traces of lost time captured in texts, pictures, objects, and ephemera, and by the ways in which these traces return to unsettle the present. It dances, too, around that peculiarly archival dilemma: whether to collect everything, centralise it, and set it in amber for posterity, or to throw it all away, live in the present moment, and give the past over to entropy and dispersal. No such proposal as Orbán's was made in Gospodinov's native country—since 2011, the records of the Bulgarian Committee for State Security have been open to the public—but Gospodinov's interest in how history is written and fabricated, suppressed and unearthed, permeates his work to the roots.


Gospodinov's novel opens with an inability to speak. At a country fair in 1925, the narrator's grandfather, then a young boy, has his lips locked by a magician. He is struck dumb, and can only moo helplessly in his throat. He is enticed into a freak show, where he gazes at the pathetic figure of a bull-headed boy and hears a bastardized version of the Minotaur myth. The keeper, who tells the story, has a pointed stick, and flourishes it at the monster to make him speak. Moo, the monster says reluctantly, as inarticulate and as helpless as the mute boy watching him. Moo.

If Gospodinov wasn't far too clever a writer to be pinned down on anything so vulgarly obvious as a straight-up allegory, you'd have to say that the myth of the Minotaur is his main vehicle for thinking aloud about the archive. As we'll see, that's not just 'the archive' as a repository of textual or material evidence, but 'the archive' in a more abstract sense: the accumulated records of narrative, of experience, of the individual and collective memory. In Gospodinov's telling, the Minotaur is a victim, unable to choose the manner of his own conception, so helplessly malformed. His interment in the labyrinth signifies authority's practice of disposing of the evidence of its own monstrosity. He's the secret police file in the closed archive, the madwoman in the attic, the spectre of a repressed history that haunts the above-ground world.

His captivity is reenacted compulsively throughout The Physics of Sorrow. The novel is full of basements, cellars, and underfloor spaces. The narrator (a version of Gospodinov himself, one of many that flit and shimmer through the text, never quite distinguishable) recounts a childhood spent in a basement flat, watching the shoes of passersby. His grandfather waits out the last months of World War II in a Hungarian cellar, kept ignorant of the war's end by the mistress of the house. He leaves her pregnant and returns home only to have to hide in his own basement: the Communists are looking for deserters, and will shoot him if they find him. In a later strand, the original Gospodinov (or someone very like him) returns to his childhood home and installs himself in a basement bomb shelter, coming out only at night, spending his days sifting through old newspapers and gum wrappers, and trying to burrow his way toward some kind of accommodation with the past. This Gospodinov disappears, and a new narrator is sent in to sort out the files and boxes he has assembled in the shelter. He does not come out again.

In all instances, the encounter with the subterranean world is destructive: the grandfather's hair turns white underground, the child never really emerges from his basement, the compulsive archivist-narrator disappears. Whether you're the Minotaur himself or one of the youths sacrificed to him, your chances of exiting the Labyrinth in one piece are always slim. In a particularly hair-raising early passage, the narrator installs himself in the consciousness of a slug being swallowed by his grandfather (he of the country fair and the double-basement adventure), in order to ease the pain of a stomach ulcer. We read of the slug's surprise and pleasure as it passes through the gullet into the warm cellar of the stomach, where it anneals the ulcer with its trail; then we access its rising panic as the acids begin to bite.

We know about the slug because the narrator—so he tells us—is able to enter the experiences of anyone and anything, unlimited by history or place. He consults a doctor, who calls this gift "pathological empathy." As a smart, self-ironizing excuse for the novelist's traditional omniscience, this conceit allows Gospodinov to have his postmodern cake and eat it, too. It's the kind of enabling device that might easily have made The Physics of Sorrow a magical-realist-lite family saga with dinky narratological bells and whistles attached. It could have been cute; it might certainly have sold more. But Gospodinov is playing for higher stakes than the opportunity to be the Bulgarian Jonathan Safran Foer. He's interested in the idea of a radical, trans-human empathy not for what it allows him to do in terms of storytelling, but in the way that it makes the entire world a potentially boundless repository of lived experience, a universal archive of the senses, of emotions, and of narrative. Narrative, in particular, is something for which he has a destructive appetite. He moves through his own book buying, begging, and stealing stories, spinning them out of chance encounters and tangential suggestions, filching them from the memories of those who've lived them. He's a figure of the writer as kleptomaniac, cat-burglar, and spy, constantly ravening for new materials and always unfulfilled: a Minotaur in a labyrinth of his own construction, possessed by a monstrous and lonely hunger.

The result is a sprawling, digressive, and—yes, sorry—labyrinthine novel. Stories are lost in other stories, return to their source, are lost again or superseded; narrative voices flicker in and out of focus, blurring around the edges. In Gospodinov's debut, Natural Novel, the narrator (again a fractured and elusive avatar of Gospodinov himself) outlines a manifesto of sorts:

My immodest desire is to mould a novel of beginnings, a novel that keeps starting, promising something, reaching page 17 and then starting again. [ . . . ] An atomic novel of opening lines floating in the void. [ . . . ] Yet this Novel of Beginnings will describe nothing. It will only give the initial impetus and will subtly move into the shadow of the next opening . . .
If this kind of high-postmodernist hijinks risks becoming a little wearying, Gospodinov carries it off well. There's an essential levity to his writing, a genuine playfulness that means that even if all the anecdotes, musings, digressions, and blind alleys don't quite earn their keep, those that do so make the enterprise worthwhile.

These tricks and fancies present more than the usual run of challenges to a translator. There are moments in The Physics of Sorrow—riffs on spelling, smartass puns, a gleeful deconstruction of popular commonplaces—that must have tested the bounds of translatability itself. Angela Rodel's translation attacks these obstacles with inventiveness and grace. Gospodinov can swing, in the space of a sentence, from facetious horsing about to plangent lyricism, and Rodel proves more than capable of following him. It's a rare achievement for a translation to make it clear that you're reading the work of a master stylist without trying too hard to replicate the fireworks of the original: Rodel maintains the slight margin of respectful distance, the grain of awkwardness, that lets you know that what you're reading is only an approximation of the original text.

In its recursions and digressions, in its play of random association and apparently haphazard accumulation, Gospodinov's novel itself recalls the texture of an archive. In reading it, you're pleasurably pulled apart by the tension between form and formlessness, between aggregation and dispersal. You can begin to believe that you're performing something like the work of historical research from primary sources: trawling through the disordered residue of the past and burrowing, through all the blind alleys and sudden, disorienting recontextualisations, toward some kernel of recoverable truth, some intimation of what really happened.


This fantasy of recovery, and the ways in which it falls short of its utopian potential, have been central preoccupations of much of the fiction of the past half-century. There's an obvious genealogy connecting Gospodinov with Jorge Luis Borges's obsessions with the archive, the map, the library, and the collection; with Danilo Kiš's quasi-historical method of writing about the victims of totalitarianism as if from incomplete historical records; and perhaps even with the subtle archival framings of twentieth-century dystopias. If Fernando Pessoa is the most obvious referent for a novel constructed, like Gospodinov's, of apparently disordered and fragmentary musings, another model might be Evgeny Zamyatin's We, in which the totalitarian One State is described through the secret diaries of a disobedient subject. When George Orwell cribbed from We to write Nineteen Eighty-Four, he didn't steal this narrative structure wholesale, but—as Thomas Pynchon notes in his introduction to the Penguin Modern Classics edition—the final appendices on the history of Newspeak are phrased in the past tense, in a non-Newspeak English: the suggestion, Pynchon argues, is that both Ingsoc and Newspeak can be written about from an anticipated future in which they've been consigned to the dustbin of history. The archival document, witness to crimes against humanity, holds out the hope of being read in a kinder future. Likewise, the novel constructed as a repository of fragments holds out the tantalising possibility of its having been reassembled, however tentatively, by an unseen archivist or editor who knows the secret of liberating the Minotaur from its labyrinth. In his bunker, Gospodinov's narrator backs up his computer drive to a RAM disk and encases it, as per the instructions given to Noah, in a miniature ark of gopher wood. "I gather for the sake of the one who is to come," he writes. "For the post-apocalyptic reader, if we may agree to call him that."

The Physics of Sorrow holds together most powerfully when it engages directly with the fantasy of such an apocalypse-surviving archive. Reflecting on the high-tech time capsules buried by the Westinghouse Electric Corporation during the New York World's Fairs in 1939 and 1965, and the boxes that he and his classmates were encouraged to bury by their schoolteachers in 1970s Bulgaria, Gospodinov's narrator tries to puzzle through the mania for time capsules that gripped both sides during the Cold War. The drawings he and his schoolmates buried beneath their schoolyard featured Bulgarian cosmonauts of the 2070s triumphantly exporting Communism to the stars; the 1939 Westinghouse capsule, for all its claims to represent a civilization, was felt to be so behind the times within a quarter of a century that (as Gospodinov tells it) another had to be made – this time containing the diagrams for the atomic bomb. Were these time capsules statements of confidence that there would be a future? Or rather acknowledgments that the apocalypse was imminent, and that the best that could be hoped for was to pass on Communism and Capitalism's best excuses and most gratifying self-images to their far-off inheritors? Our narrator has no answers. The problem is not so much, perhaps, that the textures of the past cannot be recaptured in the present, as that any attempt to preserve the present for the future is as absurd as it is hubristic.

This is ground with which Gospodinov is familiar. In 2004, he collaborated with the artist Yana Genova on an exhibition and catalogue entitled An Inventory of Socialism. The project resurrected the textures and colours of life in pre-1990 Bulgaria, from brands of food to newspapers, items of clothing, kitchen utensils; it was an exercise in ambivalent nostalgia, aimed at interrogating what happens when you attempt to reconstruct the whole edifice of the past from its scattered components. Alienated from their original contexts, objects can evoke the past in part but never in whole; the attempt to remake a lost reality can only end in dishonest kitsch or honest despair. In his bunker, the narrator tends toward the latter. Having constructed his own inventory of socialism, and ransacked the archive of his own brain for some entry into his personal and national past, he ends up only erasing himself. Again, he becomes the Minotaur in the Labyrinth: orphaned, lost, stymied not by a lack of exits but by a multitude of possible ways out.


Even if return is possible, it is never the return one might wish for. Gospodinov Junior returns to Hungary where his grandfather could not, to meet a very old woman and her son who may or may not be his half-cousin; he returns to his nameless home-town, the house in which he grew up; he returns, through his gift of empathy, to the lived experiences of the dead. But real, actual return is a nightmare: the past is a fundamentally hostile place. Toward the end of the book, there's an odd dystopic fable: a man returning to his home town wakes up to find that everything looks as it did under Communism, the same clothes and newspapers and the same Pioneer demonstrations in the town square. Everyone is dressed in the fashions of fifty years ago, the shops are stocked with only two brands of everything, and the statues have been resurrected. In his modern clothes he sticks out like a sore thumb, and quickly finds himself being arrested and hauled off to the police station for an aggressive interrogation. It turns out he's in a kind of theme park, a museum of socialism in which a whole town has been paid to pretend it's the seventies all over again. Here's what happens, Gospodinov says, when you take the implicit Ostalgia of projects like An Inventory of Socialism to its natural conclusion: authentic textures, authentic confectionary, authentic scarcity, and authentic violence.

In the end, though, the outlook is not hopeless, and this is what brings us back to the strange promise hidden in Orbán's idea of archival dispersal. For Gospodinov, truly useful archives do exist, and can offer a reconnection, however tentative and provisional, with the past. These are not the archives of the historian or the secret policeman, but those the world itself builds from accretions of experience and accidents of preservation. The Physics of Sorrow finds such archives everywhere it looks. A bottle of brandy from the day of the narrator's birth encapsulates all "the sunny days that summer, the early autumn rains, the humidity in the air, the quality of the soil, the vine diseases, the year's whole history written in a glass bottle." Ratty old hotel beds become transparencies upon which one can discern the ghostly forms of "the bodies of everyone who has lain there for the past 200 years, thin, translucent, as negatives." Finally the net is cast as wide as possible, into the world of plants and animals and rocks, the organic and the inorganic, the simultaneously inaccessible and universal experience of things beyond language:

"[t]he deep, cold storehouses of that silence. Untouched by language. Because language channels and drains deposits of knowledge like a drill. [ . . . ] they've been telling their tales, but their muted, suppressed narrative has turned into mica and lichen, seaweed, moss, honey, the tearing apart of others' bodies and the torn-apartness of their own."
These archives might not be readily accessible, but they hold out the utopian possibility that, although the past cannot be recaptured, it might be possible to engage it with an empathy that no doctor need characterise as pathological.

Is this hippy nonsense? Maybe. Gospodinov doesn't care what you think. This isn't even a novel, never mind a manifesto; it's a collection of notes found in a basement, a bricolage of observations by a series of provisional Gospodinovs whom the real Gospodinov, whoever he is, keeps sloughing off like dead skin. It's a catalogue of winsome observations by a middle-aged novelist who's just had a child, who thinks a lot about his divorce, who misses smoking and the way that cigarette smoke disperses wordlessly into the air. (He'd like to disperse wordlessly into the air, too.) Like the accretive archives of the natural world, The Physics of Sorrow evades description and categorisation.

But this is a lie, of course, and behind the author's multiple evasions, somewhere just beyond reach, there is furious control. Gospodinov may appear to be on a leisurely stroll through his own book like an aimless punter ambling through a museum, studying this and that, stringing together sequence and juxtaposition purely by happenstance: in fact he's the museum's curator, and the sequence is anything but casual. The semi-numinous visions of universal archives, the ludicrous time-capsules, the monitory fable of what a real time-capsule might look like are all pinned coldly, like butterflies, in the novel's display case—along with all the proliferating voices Gospodinov inhabits, the grandfather in his basement refuge, the bomb shelter, the cosmonauts who never came to be but float forever beneath a Bulgarian schoolyard, holding out bunches of red carnations to the planets they're about to claim for socialism. Whether the archive is retained under the authority of the state or given over to the atomised world of the private, whether the novel is presided over by a single narrator or passed around between an army of ghosts, there is a real past there. You just can't have it back, not even in fiction.