Thursday, March 24, 2016

The Sorrow In My Body, aka "The Physics of Sorrow"

... he who increases knowledge increases sorrow...

Like all men of the Library, I have traveled in my youth; I have wandered in search of a book, perhaps the catalogue of catalogues; now that my eyes can hardly decipher what I write, 
I am preparing to die just a few leagues from the hexagon in which I was born.
Jorge Luis Borges, The Library of Babel

Several days ago I've posted a short text about Georgi Gospodinov's The Physics of Sorrow. The text was driven by my personal experience in reading the novel, and as a reflection on a Bulgarian novel, my text was also born in Bulgarian. But, for the sake of those few people who'd care to read me - and I feel pretty sure that those same people carry a literary curiosity, I thought I'd reassume it in English.  "Reassume" was of course very flighty way to think of it, but I guess that's what gave me the courage to write, now in English, on a novel, which has been not only translated in English (and apparently, extraordinary well, since the translation by Angela Rodel was shortlisted for the American PEN Award), but it has also received numerous, well-written and extremely favourable reviews in any possible language.

And maybe, but only maybe, this second drafting on the same score would give me the chance to put my thoughts on that novel in a more ordered way. And to come to grips with it.

The Physics of Sorrow is written in the way of a postmodern novel. It doesn't have a classical storyline, but rather goes in a labyrinth manner, has multiple entries and multiple exits, dead-ends and various lines that lead you through its ways. And yet, Gospodinov doesn't abandon us to ourselves in this journey. He hands us the thread of Ariadne and lets us follow through, repeating the gesture of that same Ariadne, whom he hates for betraying the Minotaur. In fact, the novel jiggles with several metaphors that run trough the whole text, get transformed, or get lost and reemerge in another corridor of the labyrinth. Such metaphors are the Minotaur, the abandoned child, the sad man, the losses and the lists that are trying to collect and save what is doomed to be lost. Nevertheless, the reader doesn't feel lost in the novel, on the contrary, one feels accepted and understood. Perhaps because we are all lost in our own labyrinths, we are all abandoned to ourselves. And even if we a holding a red thread in our hands, we still don't know where is it going to lead us, or is there going to be a happy ending. Gospodinov - or the Author, in general - could not give us a map of ourselves, but, still, he could hand us that red thread to follow through ourselves.

What makes The Physics of Sorrow a good novel is its capacity to tell a personal story (and even more than one, which run sometimes in a parallel way, sometimes intertwined), and to evoke the personal story of the reader to his mind. Its capacity to be empathic provokes our personal memories. The story of the novel is personal to the point that it is universal: it tells stories that happen to us all. It tells our universal personal story.

Speaking of empathy,  this is what is the story about. A small boy has a "pathologic empathy", he is able to easily slip into other's minds and memories, and is growing more and more cautious of not doing so, realizing that the experience leaves him confused and saddened. As the boy grows up, his "disorder" gradually vanishes, transforming him into a normal man, a writer, for that matter. The writer, not being any more able to experience the stories of others in persona, starts collecting and writing down the stories and the lives of others. In fact, he starts collecting not only the told stories, but also artefacts that tell a lost story, cut out newspaper articles, plastic Indian toy figurines... Desperately holding to the past, the narrator gets stiff with nostalgia, and as every stiff thing he gets cracked. The story could have ended this way. The narrator disappears from the story. But the novel continues, and offers different endings, suggesting that nothing is definite, no list is exhaustive. 

The two big questions about The Physics of Sorrow are, Does it make sense?, and, Does it give hope? 
I don't know. As fluid and as moving as life itself, the novel doesn't either make sense or not. Making sense of ourselves is our task. And what about the hope? Does it succeed to leave behind all the stuffed memories, the sugar sweetness of nostalgia, the endless lists that pin down the lost (as lost), and to look into the future not as an impending apocalypse but as a direction to live to? 
And it is in that hesitation that the hope itself lives in. 

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