'The Physics of Sorrow' by Georgi Gospodinov follows 'Time Shelter'. to the US: NPR

Cover of The Physics of Grief

Bulgarian writer Georgi Gospodinov won the International Booker Prize in 2023 for his book, Shelter time. An English version of The Physics of griefan earlier novel, has just been published in the United States.

Towards the end of this brilliant book, Gospodinov discusses the concept of 'weight' in physics. He writes: 'The past, sadness, literature – only these three weightless whales interest me.' This complex sentence summarizes Gospodinov's fascinating literary explorations.

Elegantly translated by Angela Rodel, The physics of grief is a fragmented novel that coalesces into a remarkable, thought-provoking whole. It is a winding labyrinth through Bulgarian communism, art, literature, history, personal past, love, sadness and much more.

In epigraphs, Gospodinov relies on the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges and the Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa, members of the tradition in which Gospodinov writes. At the same time, he quotes Saint Augustine, Gustave Flaubert and his own fictional character Gaustine, signaling to readers not to take anything too seriously, but also to think about the weight of each word.

Gospodinov frames his novel around the myth of the Minotaur, a monster with a bull's head and a man's body, trapped in an underground labyrinth on Crete. There are several variations of the myth and several explanations for how the Minotaur came to be. Gospodinov searches through many, like a gourmet chef selects products. He explores how aspects of this myth have been instilled in modernity: man behaves like a beast and society 'others' those who are different.

Gospodinov's story is fluid. Sometimes he writes in the first person, sometimes a boy/man named Georgi (like the author) narrates, sometimes the story is in the third person. We gain insight into Gospodinov's reading and writing life. “At the age of five I learned to read, at the age of six it was already an illness… literary bulimia.” He leaves a blank space on a page and says it is written in invisible fruit ink. 'What, so you don't see anything? …If only I could write an entire novel in such ink.'

If there is a plot, it consists of the arcs of several lives, including a person like the author himself and a person who may resemble his grandfather. We get the memories of characters from World War I and World War II, which could be Gospodinov's own family stories.

The physics of grief, however, is not a novel to read for its plot. It is a book that raises difficult questions about the human condition, and takes labyrinthine digressions into subjects that consume us – life, death, social misery, war, peace, old age, youth. And perhaps especially the creation of literature.

For Gospodinov, time is an artifice. Present, past and future slide around like pieces on a chessboard. A section called “The Chiffonier of Memory” is an example of Gospodinov's technique. Here the narrator – perhaps the author – is a journalist writing about Bulgarian cemeteries from the Second World War. He travels through Serbia on the roads where his grandfather “trudged on foot through the mud in the winter of 1944,” before stopping in Harkány, Hungary, to interview a man who lives in a house where his grandfather lived during the war was billeted.

The man comments on his mother, an old woman present at the interview, as an opportunity to explore memory: 'Her memory is a chiffonier, I feel her opening the long, locked drawers… she needs more then wade through it once. after all, fifty years.”

The man is uncomfortable with his mother's silence. He asks her something. 'She turns her head slightly, without taking her eyes off me [the narrator]. It can come across as a sign, a negative reaction, or as part of her own internal monologue.” The man notes that since his mother had a stroke, her memory is no longer there.

But the narrator has a different experience. He ignores his interviewee's comments, certain that the woman recognizes him because he looks exactly like his grandfather.

The narrator jumps through time to describe how beautiful this woman was as a young woman, and how much his grandfather loved her. Although the narrator was not there, he describes what she looked like and what she wore, projecting his grandfather's love affair – which may or may not have happened – as his own.

Even though the narrator and the old woman have 'no language in which we can share everything', her eyes say in 'impeccable Bulgarian: Hello, thank you, bread, wine …I continue in Hungarian: szep (beautiful) … as if I am passing on a secret message from my deceased grandfather.”

Who actually experienced this love affair and who is the narrator? The passage can be read as a linear narrative, until the reader considers the enormous gap between the time of the interview and the time of the love affair.

The book claims to be about grief, and it is. Grief walks through life in many guises: sadness, abandonment, regret, guilt. For this reader, Gospodinov's multifaceted reflections on human (and mythical) grief are reason enough to read the book.

At one point, Gospodinov writes that he strives to “keep an accurate catalog of everything.” It feels like he almost succeeded with this innovative, compelling novel.

Martha Anne Tol is a DC-based writer and reviewer. Her debut novel, Three Muses, won the Petrichor Prize for Finely Crafted Fiction and was shortlisted for the Gotham Book Prize. Her second novel, Duet for onewill be released in May 2025.

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