The Physics of Sorrow by Georgi Gospodinov, translated from the Bulgarian by Angela Rodel (Open Letter, 270 pages)
Gospodinov's latest creation is so kaleidoscopic, so brilliantly varied and nearly out-of-control, that I don't even know where to begin.
Maybe I should start with the Minotaur. You know, that half-bull-half-human from Greek myth that was condemned to wander around in a labyrinth until he was killed by Theseus? Yes, that Minotaur. Gospodinov takes this story and teases out several of its key themes, including abandonment, loneliness, and confusion over identity. With these tools, he tries to analyze the events of his own life, as well as his father's and grandfather's. At one point, Gospodinov tells the story of when his grandfather was "accidentally" abandoned at a mill- times were difficult in Bulgaria during WWI, and his family was starving. When one of the grandfather's sisters realized that they were missing little Georgi, his mother hesitated, considering all of the mouths she needed to feed. Ultimately, the sister ran back to get him, but the Georgi who narrates Physics of Sorrow imagines what it must have felt like during those few hours to feel completely alone and abandoned by one's family.
Gospodinov's narrator admits to having an especially keen ability to empathize; it's so strong, that he can actually jump into other people's minds and memories, and experience events that only that person could have experienced. In this way, he can (he argues) understand the Minotaur better than most people. And yet, the story of his own life- growing up in Communist Bulgaria in the 1970s, wandering around the world, writing, collecting- is itself a story of abandonment and isolation. When his parents left him each day to go to work, the narrator would sit outside his dreary apartment building, staring at passing people and insects and cracks in the cement. He became incredibly attuned to detail and harnessed his empathy.
The Physics of Sorrow, however, is much more than story fragments and anecdotes. It is a collage of genres and narrative devices. At one point, the narrator lists examples of abandoned people throughout history; at another, he presents a legal defense of the Minotaur. In yet another section, he painstakingly catalogues all of the ephemera he's collected over the decades, which he keeps in labeled boxes, in an attempt to understand what makes up a life, even after it ends.
One of the most humorous sub-sections of the novel is called "List of Available Answers to the Question How Are You," in which the narrator focuses on the absurdity of the question and its absurd answers. He sardonically analyzes the usual responses, which include "So-so," "Still alive and kicking," and "Losing brain cells." In this way, Gospodinov forces us to examine our own lives, expectations, and assumptions. He asks us to look outside of ourselves, to myth and family history and national history, to find meaning in a world that often seems cruel and cold. A mixture of grim humor, keen self-reflection, and even a bit of dogged optimism, The Physics of Sorrow is not to be missed.