Gospodinov or the Art of Balkan Melancholy

A review of the novel The Physics of Sorrow, published in 2021 in Romanian in translation by Catalina Puiu

Aurelian Giugăl (source: YouTube)

A review of the novel The Physics of Sorrow, published in 2021 in Romanian in translation by Catalina Puiu

Aurelian Giugăl

In the third month of autumn, sometime in November 2021, quotes from Georgi Gospodinov’s The Physics of Sorrow appeared in Romanian online social media? (Facebook). A literary critic (or something like that) expressed thoughts about the writer’s puberty and the somewhat intimate relationship between adolescent events and political ones (it so happens that right after the author’s first kiss with a girl Brezhnev died). Another quotation, taken from the novel by a university professor, refers to the year 1952, when, at some anniversary of the University of Frankfurt, Horkheimer appears not only aged but in a frivolous mood, with some carnival objects (what would Adorno say about such allegorical frivolity?).

It should be noted that much earlier, in 2011, the Moldovan publishing house Cartier published Georgi Gospodinov’s Natural Novel in Romanian (published in Bulgarian in 1999). And in 2015, literary critic Florina Pirjol interviewed the Bulgarian writer and noted that The Physics of Sorrow, a collection published in Bulgaria in 2012, had won several major literary awards. In this interview, Gospodinov says that he has met Cartarescu, and plenty of MA and PhD research in Bulgaria is already talking about similarities between the two.

Both Gospodinov and Cartarescu are touched by the sweet wing of melancholy that envelops their childhoods and pasts. Neither of them likes the label of Eastern European writer. 

Georgi Gospodinov, just over 50 (he was born in 1968), is a successful, widely acclaimed writer who has been translated into several languages. As the introduction makes clear, the writer lives in Sofia and regularly publishes in the Bulgarian newspaper Dnevnik and in Deutsche Welle. Gospodinov is a modern European type, intelligent, melancholic, a writer who buys/collects/records all kinds of stories. And there are many stories in The Physics of Sorrow.

For example, the taxi driver Malamko lives within a gentle hope. A voluptuous young Sofian woman, “superwoman, bro, super,” apparently falls for the hard-working taxi driver as he gives her a tour of the Bulgarian capital. Never mind that the voluptuous young woman hasn’t paid for the taxi’s fare, but has promised to look him up. Malamko keeps thinking: if he hasn’t given her the phone number, how will she find her random lover? The narrator, Gospodinov, is generous and doesn’t ruin Malamko’s best day, and even tips the “lover” generously; we hear him say, “I’m just fucking, not looking for trouble.”

In another story, the former G., who squeezes sin out of women like oil out of olives, is a kind of seductress-moralist who has devoted himself to tempting good and faithful women, but once he has subdued them, he does not enjoy their love. It was all a little exercise in seduction, a form of carnal mischief. Unperturbed by the strange lover’s behavior, the tempted woman asks him if “it is not (equally) against nature and sinful not to lie beside the woman who has come to you and taken everything from you – husband, children, and the whole law of God…”

The story of Juliet and her brother Gosho Central, who takes away her title as the town idiot, is also sensitive. In Gospodinov’s capsule, Juliet loves Alain Delon, knows all his films, and waits for him, ready to leave at any time just so Delon can write her a few lines before he comes to pick her up from the boring Bulgarian town.  

Yes, Gospodinov, like every middle-class Eastern European writer educated in the state schools of the defunct Communist regime, is highly cultured, charming, has verve, and captivates. But read in a political, ideologically engaged key, The Bulgarian is disarmingly prosaic. Clichés abound in this collection of melancholy short stories. Without dwelling too much on the political side, Gospodinov’s notes are part of the petty-bourgeois malevolence of the big cities of Central and Eastern Europe, but they also contain small reflections on the communist world. Let us look at some samples from the writer’s imagination. 

Gospodinov aptly writes that in post-war Bulgaria “the communists went everywhere (and) killed for the slightest thing.” A kind of wild horde (The Wild Bunch) – these communists, they don’t know how to joke. A few pages later we hear the voice of a teacher. A woman who is afraid of Communists, she suddenly tenses when the child Gospodinov answers “God” after the class is asked to identify words beginning with the letter “b” (in Bulgarian the word for God is Bog – note of the translator). When the child told his grandmother at home that God did not exist, as he had just learned this at school, the weak woman burst into tears. So, not only are spices (paprika) and butter missing in Bulgaria, but God himself is missing. Communism, filled with scarcity. One can imagine how strangely Westerners look at the notes about this regime that does not produce abundance. And in boring and predictable post-1989 Romania, even in election campaigns, questions of a voluntarily comic nature were asked, such as, “Dear Mr. candidate for the political-presidential office, do you believe in God?”

Lenin himself was put on the spot. Like any precocious genius, Gospodinov learned to read at the age of five, and by the age of six he was reading like a bookworm – a kind of bulimia, the author says. Gospodinov takes a book on forensics from his parents’ library and recalls that it says it is compulsory to study bourgeois forensics precisely to expose its reactionary nature. Of course, Lenin, who else, stands at the beginning of revolutionary criminology, with the author pointing out that Lenin “had criminality in his blood.” Later on, Gospodinov deals with the films, he notes that in red westerns (is there such a thing?) “the blacks are the good guys, the proletariat, so to speak, they are the red communists”. Moreover, for the lovers of love, communism is a godsend: in the absence of a profession, people make love in the dark. These lovelorn and bored homo socialisiticus or homo communisticus are not much interested in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. There has been little Joyce to be found for sale in English bookshops. But what demands can you make of your fellow citizens, 80% of whom never left the country before 1989? The remark is also from the book. 

There are many other examples, and further reporting on them would not contribute to a better picture. On his anti-communist side, our author, the Bulgarian Gospodinov, is extremely predictable, perhaps not as “bitter” as another well-known writer, this time feeling trapped by Romanian communism (apparently Aurelian Giugăl refers to Cartarescu). 

Gospodinov is a tireless traveller and visits many places. When he receives the news that his wife is pregnant, he finds himself 2,000 miles away. He then lists the many cities he has visited: Graz, Turin, Bamberg, Edirne, Rouen, Graz, Prague, Vienna, Zagreb, Pisa, etc., “the small cities of Normandy, which are at the end of their strength under the historical veneer of their own past, their fortresses and cathedrals.” He also creates his own memoir of hotels: ‘the heavy velvet and the rooms as long as a compartment of the Royal Station Hotel in Newcastle’, and the large hotel in Sibiu (blue rooms, glass bathroom), which offers even a bad breakfast. In all these conditions of the tireless traveller, the writer Gospodinov remains a type of the ephemeral, the fleeting, life not of the exceptional. Life simply unfolds without remarkable events. Nothing happens. It is life in all its fullness, with “the subtle smell of wood smoke, the dripping, the sense of loneliness, the silence, the crunch of snow underfoot, the slight restlessness of twilight, slow and unstoppable.” Or, as the author repeatedly puts it, the physics of sadness is the physics of melancholy (“my melancholy”), of nostalgia (the Swiss disease), the Portuguese saudade, the Turkish hüzün. It is the melancholy of the classes who have free time and squander it.

Read in an ideological key, Gospodinov is very, very dull, predictable, preaching anti-communism de rigueur, convinced that in all possible worlds he would be all that he is, a writer with a sad melancholy, the history of the Eastern European world ever so strange, incomprehensible. He is a writer of the middle class, of the creative class, of those who sweeten their melancholy with pie, listen to non-conformist music and dream of a Western European destiny for their own country. Too little of the book is in line with the cultural and ideological revolutions before the two world wars, too little has to do with the irrationality of the world (Kafka), and not in the sense of Lajos Kasak: “art transforms us, and we transform our surroundings”. Gospodinov’s art is not an art of resistance, but rather an adherence (through literature) to the dominant ideology of the day.

Photo: The cover of the Romanian edition of “The Physics of Sorrow” by Georgi Gospodinov.

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