THE PHYSICS OF SORROW
Georgi Gospodinov, tr Angela Rodel
Open Letter, 2015
As every schoolchild will know under full communism, the ways you think and behave are in large part determined by the conditions of your existence. Approaching my third year in NYC, these days I’m constantly reading something off of two outfits: NYRB Classics and Open Letter.
With the exception of Merce Rodoreda, a class unto herself, the Open Letter novels I’ve read all share by chance a similar vibe.
So PHYSICS OF SORROW seems at a glance like Fresan-lite. Subjective, fragmented, wistful boyhood memories, limpid prose style, keystones from literary history. Their structures are on the same road: novels made of self-contained novellas that nevertheless posit a total work linked by motifs. Gospodinov’s touchstone is the Minotaur myth, a monster who was abandoned as a child, locked away in a labyrinthine dungeon until his slaughter. A ghastly childhood experience, and one that pulls and pushes itself away from the other theme, the socialist experience of Bulgaria, similarly abandoned by history. Bulgaria has been through a lot, like any other Eastern European nation that found itself to be a buffer state between the Ottoman Empire and tsarist Russia, and later Nazi Europe and the USSR. The 1980s are presented in this text as a “History of Boredom.” The pall of quietude that settles after the restoration of reactionaries, a lull in the inter-imperialist train wrecks that write the history of modern capitalism, finds a reflection and a quiet pathos in these wistful titled fragments, accumulated in different chapters that work like thematic folders.
It’s a lean novel because its structure is more rigorous. For all of its constellations it is decisively linear, which is more accurate to the archetypal labyrinth designs, less about being lost and more about a circuitous line that provokes contemplation.
It is also as I read it extremely self-reflective, so that the I pronoun, an empathetic boy who grows up to be a writer, the speaker, is the trajectory of the modern novel. It starts in a carnival, which like a section on Dziga Vertov’s documentary in later chapter, embodies these fragmented and concept-driven contemporary narratives, becoming montages of attraction, a root in surrealism and the Arcades. As a boy, the narrator could embody the lives of others, even a slug as it’s being swallowed by the boy’s grandfather. Likewise, the realist novels of the great tradition, with their omniscient narrators, could embody all figures that appear in a novel’s landscape. But this capacity dissipates along with childhood, and it’s interesting to track the change in material and form in each chapter; the relative coherency of the early parts becomes more and more unworkable, Every chapter might have a different hint to the text’s function. It’s like a time capsule for memories, to be opened in the future after humankind has reset after an apocalypse. Or it’s like an ark (a nod to MOBY-DICK, which has a good joke about Noah Webster’s ark), where the fragments are like beasts safeguarded from annihilation and the slaughterhouse.
There are a lot of cute ideas. Forget storytellers; there is a chapter on the story buyer (with story sellers), where immaterial narratives are traded about, their exchange value expressed in flower petals and other ephemera. Or what if, following quantum physics, “the lack of an observer presupposes all manner of combinations,” and therefore a novel is not an inert “work” without the reader, but existing in a totally different way?
The fun of this formal arrangement for novels is that montage of attractions mentioned above, the diverse range of material arranged in little bits. Who knows which ones will strike you most? For me it was a fragment in the chapter “Time Bomb (To Be Opened After the End of the World)” called “Future Number 73.”
Many years after the apocalypse, life springs up again and after several millennial man makes a reappearance. These new post-apocapytites develop more or less the same as earlier people did, not counting a few insignificant deviations (mutations), for example, the fact that they are incapable of abstract thought. Clearly, nature or God learned a lesson from the previous, less-than-smashingly successful experiment and has made some healthy adjustments.
Looking it over now, there’s lot of implicit points here about how PHYSICS OF SORROW is a post-Marxist novel both historically and ideologically. The sarcasm regarding ideological struggle is hard to miss. Nevertheless, Marxist principles and methodology (its forms, at the very least) endure as indelible memories or vestigial structures. It remembers the vulgar Marxist view of history as an “evolution.” But it’s a touch Romantic: if only we didn’t have abstract thought, we wouldn’t be so willing to kill and die for ideas. Romanticism holds capitalism in contempt because capitalism, in its scientistic arrogance, tries to illuminate the mysteries of the world by illuminating it through the same measure (exchange value, price). It instrumentalizes the world by making everything in it part of a market of exchangeable commodities. Similarly, the Enlightenment, which postmodernism attacks mainly to liquidate Marxism, articulates a colonial philosophy in which reality can be apprehended an assimilated into a perspectival representational space — everything can be mapped out. These attitudes are damningly close to the premise of dialectical materialism, that everything unknown in nature can be disclosed. And that mediations, not necessarily untrustworthy for the same reasons that Romantics attacked commodity logic, language, map-for-the-territory, is precisely the explanation that your consciousness is determined by the conditions of your social being.
Notice that it’s either “nature or God.” Historical materialism did no better than religious or metaphysical master narratives, imbuing its sequence with a transcendental purpose, a teleology. And it’s true that the revisionists at the time of the second international presented Marxism in this way. The more existential wing of modernist writers seem to merge together the fundamental human-nature contradiction into a more metaphysical kind of angst.
The “New Ones,” this post-apocalyptic race who do not think abstractly, find a time capsule, including three phrases from Bulgarian socialist propaganda. They change their organization to meet the ways of the fore-fathers. Prepared and trained for the sea of life. They open schools in the oceans. “On land they started to feel like beached whales. And life gradually returned to the sea. (What an evolutionary step backward.)
The socialist family — the basic cell of our society. “And that, true to the second line of the Testament, they filled the sea with wooden cells. Every newly married couple received one as a wedding present and lounged in it of their own free will.”
To spill your blood for the homeland. “Three times a year they celebrated the Day of Greaet Bloodletting, on which they injured themselves, so as to offer up spilled blood to the Homeland.
Future 73 is a doomed civilization. They hilariously interpreted an alien text literally. But it’s not unlike how socialism did get exported, or xeroxed, in a mechanical way in Eastern Europe which led to a great deal of contradictions. Lenin in STATE AND REVOLUTION recognized that there ought to be multiple types of proletarian dictatorships, since bourgeois dictatorships obviously take on different forms depending on ideological and national characteristics.
So like Fresan’s THE INVENTED PART, and probably FOX by Dubravka Ugresic, which is next, PHYSICS mixes fiction and essay, stories and concepts of all types, into an indeterminate subjective space. And the novel suggests (as Fredric Jameson suggested in the 70s) that this indeterminate space is not unlike the space of legends, of the classical world. Gaspodinov makes an interesting remark in the second chapter that the ancient world is modern human’s childhood (a riff on a famous or infamous point by Marx), it’s odd that their mythology contains few kids as we know them. Later on, in the Time Bomb chapter, we read:
The unlikeliest things can turn out to be… Hexameter, for example. If something is said in hexameter, then historically and practically speaking, it has an infinite expiration date. The whole of the Trojan War is preserved in the capsule of hexameter. If that story had been stuffed into any other form whatsoever, it would have given out, gone sour, gotten torn up, crumbled…Hexameter turned out to be the longest-lasting material.
Hesiod, in his Works and Days, has left behind a true survival kit with instructions. If something happens to the world and people come who don’t know anything, thanks to this book they will learn which month is good for sowing, which for plowing, when a boar or a bellowing bullock or hardworking donkey should be castrated.
It also includes these favorite instructions:
One should not urinate facing the sun while standing erect, but
One should remember always to do it at sunset and sunrise.
Nor should you piss on the path or next to the path when out walking;
Nor should you do it when naked; nighttime belongs to the blessed.
After humankind has destroyed itself and begins once again as children, they’ll have to be potty trained.