The Physics of Sorrow by Georgi Gospodinov


We Are Made Of Labyrinths

We Am

So ends the series of schizophrenic introductions found in the prologue to Georgi Gospodinov’s The Physics of Sorrow, a novel that finds a young, fictionalized version of the author jumping into the memories of his immediate family and the other people and beings around him to experience their pains, sorrows, and joys first hand. Gospodinov has discovered from an early age that he possesses an acute gift for empathy. The ability to understand and process what another person is experiencing from their point of view. To know exactly how they think and feel. To blur the line, at least in small bursts of time, between where they begin and he ends. Jumping directly inside the memories of others, he uses this gift to uncover stories that tell of a secret history buried in his family’s past, but as the book progresses, and as he steadily grows older, this talent slowly begins to disappear, leaving him alone, on his own, to search for meaning in the world around him through his now adult eyes.

The Minotaur is Not Guilty

From an early age Gospodinov sets out to prove the innocence of the mythical minotaur figure. Year after year, well into adulthood, he continues to build a strong defense on the beast’s behalf, one story at a time. He wonders: Why have we no empathy for this creature? Have we forgotten he was in fact part human? Wasn’t he once a frightened, abandoned, and banished child? Sentenced to live a life devoid of family, friendship, and love, the minotaur is forced to stay isolated from society, locked away forever within the confines of an endless labyrinth. It’s the idea that storytelling itself, by its very nature, is labyrinthine, with endless side passages, forks in the road, and alternate routes that are just waiting to be explored that Gospodinov latches on to. This, in conjunction with a steadfast belief in empathy form the building blocks of his case. That we must put ourselves in the shoes of the monster. That only by seeing the world through his eyes and feeling our way through his experiences can we truly hope to understand the depth of our own personal sorrows.

Alas, the story is linear and you have to get rid of the detours every time, wall up the side corridors. The classical narrative is an annulling of the possibilities that rain down on you from all sides. Before you fix its boundaries, the world is full of parallel versions and corridors. All possible outcomes potter about only in hesitation and indecisiveness. And quantum physics, filled with indeterminacy and uncertainty, has proved this.

Empathy is Strongest Between the Ages of Seven and Twelve

tamagotchi2Nostalgia, it would appear, is a disease that preys only on those among us who have fully grown. What Gospodinov so brilliantly questions is why the magic of childhood, a time when we believe that anything could happen, must eventually fade out, why it must disappear, to be replaced with nothing but an adulthood spent aching from the loss. As he ages Gospodinov becomes desperate to recapture the power that has abandoned him and sets out on a seemingly insane attempt to preserve specific moments from the past. Not just his past alone, but the world’s past as well. The rise and fall of Tamagotchis, gas masks, analog punch cards, Nivea hand creame, cookbooks, the Voyager space probe, and Communism swirl and combine to form a sharp, unexpected narrative. To the now older Gospodinov, possibilities become could have beens and promise gives way to reality, but one question still remains: where did the sense of wonder go? Can it be preserved through writing? Can the spark of imagination somehow be reignited by engaging in the timeless act of storytelling?

January 1, 1968—January 1, 1968

Gospodinov sets out on his attempt to document, preserve, and retell the past for future generations by filling notebooks with tales from his personal history and boxes with scraps from bizarre newspaper articles. He complements these self-made time capsules to be opened after the end of the world with stories that he purchases from perplexed people who don’t understand the value of what it is that he’s paying them for. He returns to the town where he grew up, to the house where he lived, to the basement he called home, and locks himself away, traps himself in his own labyrinth of the mind. He begins to question if all moments occur at the same time. Could we live our lives forward, then somehow travel in reverse, growing back down to the point where our birth converges with our death, where our first breath also becomes our last? Would this allow us to revel in the magic, lose the magic, and reclaim it one last time before we expire? If so, we could take the time to travel the side passages, experience every possibility, and accomplish all life has to offer us within the span of a single glorious day.

The Minotaur’s Diary

The labyrinth isn’t just an idea. It’s a physical thing as well. Gospodinov goes on to list the things in the world that are shaped in its image, among them DNA, the very building blocks of our existence, and our brains, the thought centers powering our own internal mazes of fears, desires, and emotions. This can’t be by accident. As he sits in the dark basement of his childhood home, locked away from others for forty-eight days straight now by choice, Gospodinov takes on the persona of the minotaur. Jumping backwards and forwards through time he happens upon a startling discovery. He once experienced the purest form of happiness and it lasted for all of six minutes. He can’t remember what caused this exquisite joy to occur, but one important fact from the event sticks with him, one important discovery that is the key to everything else: he was in full possession of his youth at the time.

We Was

Everything that begins must end, but it’s everything that happens in between that really counts. Georgi Gospodinov’s The Physics of Sorrow offers up a beautiful exploration of the inescapable maze-like nature of life, from the endless promises of youth, to the acquired baggage of adulthood, to the eventual acceptance of old age and death. What’s revealed is that each of us write our own personal stories, our own personal histories, every single day, and it’s these moments in time that make us unique, make us special, make us fantastic in our own individual ways. For the magic we each possess never really dies, instead the amazing gift of empathy lives on within our offspring and the next generation of young people. We pass it along to them with the hope that they can cling to it for a bit longer than we managed to. Gospodinov’s novel reminds us that we must never forget that we are not alone. We must never lose sense of who we are, who we were, where we come from, and where we’re going. And we must never stop sharing the resulting stories of our wondrous explorations with the world at large because we must allow ourselves to feel everything or be doomed to feel nothing at all.

Physics of Sorrow by Georgi Gospodinov / Translated from the Bulgarian by Angela Rodel ★★★★½
Physics of Sorrow
by Georgi Gospodinov
Translated from the Bulgarian by Angela Rodel
Open Letter Books
(2011) 2015
275 Pages
ISBN 9781940953090

About Aaron Westerman

Aaron Westerman is the Manager of Web Architecture for a national human services organization. When he's not busy tearing sites apart and rebuilding them, he spends his ever shrinking free time trying to keep up with his twins, reading works of translated literature, and watching far too many Oscar nominated movies.