Georgi Gospodinov remembers a reading he did in a small town in southern Italy, where the audience requested a specific passage from his most recent, and well-known, novel, The Physics of Sorrow. The passage tells the story of woman named Juliet, the town fool, who waits every day in front of the local cinema for French movie star Alain Delon to take her away. “I always thought the story was local, Bulgarian,” he says. “Why are they so interested? And they said something very important: ‘This is a story about our town!’ No matter where you are, when you’re away from the centre, on the periphery, every periphery is the same.”
I met Gospodinov, 50, in a very different kind of periphery, just west of New York’s Prospect Park in Brooklyn. During his 9-month stay as a fellow at the New York Public Library’s Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers, Gospodinov chose to live in an area that also houses writer Paul Auster — whom he got to know. In our interview he spoke poetically, in Bulgarian, about the themes in his writing and described how Brooklyn reminds him of Bulgaria in the 1980s, particularly the variations in light, the sounds and smells of trucks pouring concrete and the cracked sidewalks.
At the end of May, Gospodinov’s most recent book was published to great anticipation in Bulgaria. The collection of short stories tackles some of the writer’s favourite themes, from the inner thoughts of the common housefly, to buying (and stealing) other people’s stories and the inseparable relationship between empathy and sorrow. Roughly translated as All Our Bodies, the book has yet to be published in English.
Arguably Bulgaria’s best-known contemporary writer (a young Bulgarian immediately recognised him at the Park Slope cafe where our interview took place), Gospodinov is a poet, novelist and playwright. He co-wrote the first Bulgarian graphic novel in 2010, which he describes as “an anti-anthropocentric novel about how a fly participates in the most important cultural events in the history of the 20th century.” He’s worked on numerous film projects and even wrote an opera libretto. In 2017, the short film Blind Vaysha, based on a Gospodinov short story about a girl who sees the future with one eye and the past with the other, was nominated for Best Animated Short Film at the Oscars.
“Small literatures also have a right to talk about big issues. In Bulgaria, too, people fall in love, get divorced. They don’t die only with knives in their backs in battles”
Starting out as a poet, Gospodinov began making waves internationally with his first foray into fiction, Natural Novel (1999), which was translated into more than 20 languages. But it was as a result of his second novel in 2015, The Physics of Sorrow, that he really became a force to be reckoned with. The book, a bestseller in Bulgaria that won multiple national and international awards, explores the concept of tuga, translated as “sorrow” (but perhaps closer to melancholy). An almost magical realist, labyrinthine tale, it centres on the main character of the Minotaur, who has the gift, or curse, of being able to enter the stories of others through empathy. The writer cites as inspiration a 2010 study that ranked the world’s countries by the self-reported happiness of their citizens: Bulgaria came last, the unhappiest place on Earth.
Gospodinov describes tuga as the uniquely Bulgarian version of the Portuguese saudade or the Turkish hüzün, except without the nostalgia for a lost empire. Instead, it’s an illogical longing for an unattainable history, a melancholy feeling that life happens elsewhere, but in an almost paradoxically hopeful way. It’s a concept that exists beyond the confines of time or space, and it’s inextricably linked to empathy.
“The novel is called The Physics of Sorrow, but in fact, it’s empathy that’s the main theme. To experience empathy toward another person, you have to recognise sorrow, to have it inside yourself,” Gospodinov explains. “Empathy is a basic principle of reading and literature; without empathy, we are unable to identify with the characters. As kids, we know it best. Empathy is the most pronounced at 8 to 12 years old. I remember that at that age, I only read books in the first person, because I knew the protagonist wouldn’t die at the end.”
Gospodinov explains that his need to tell stories was sparked by the stories of his grandparents. “My grandmother used to say we are like flies,” he says. “With or without us, it’s the same.” Gospodinov often uses flies as a metaphor for everything in the world that is fleeting. Flies are not important in any ideology, he says. They only live for a day, they’re “anti-monumental” and easily overlooked and forgotten. “For me, the purpose of literature is to preserve the stories of that which disappears easily,” he says. “That which is long-lasting, like the pharaohs and pyramids, doesn’t need literature.”
The empathy Gospodinov affords to the fly extends to all other animals, both real and imagined, a form of what he calls “environmental empathy”. “For me, literature is too anthropocentric,” he says. “What I’d like is for humans to shut up for a moment, so that we can hear the voice of the fly, the frog, the bamboo, the Minotaur and everything else that has an equal right to life.”
Taking these kinds of metaphors to their magical realist conclusions, Gospodinov’s writing is often reminiscent of that of Italo Calvino, Jorge Luis Borges or Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Gospodinov points out that there’s an established literary culture of Bulgarian magical realism, as exemplified in his own grandparents’ stories (“That’s how old people used to tell stories in Bulgaria,” he says), as well as in the works of the three Yordans — Radichkov, Valchev, and Yovkov. “Magical realism comes from cultures with strong oral storytelling traditions, cultures that also feel isolated and closed,” he says. Feelings of alienation in Bulgaria are clearly linked to the country’s communist history, the fallout of which no contemporary Bulgarian writer can even pretend to ignore. “Magical realism is an attempt to connect to the world of the sublime,” says Gospodinov. “The idea is that you’re trapped, somewhere in the Balkans, and the world doesn’t know you, but you can be a part of that world through magic.”
Travelling far and wide on book tours and residency programs, Gospodinov has made it a point to try and dispel stereotypes around Balkan literature. At a reading in Germany, he remembers a woman saying she expected more stories about mountains, Turks, bloody conflicts and bagpipes. “I said that small literatures also have a right to talk about big issues,” he recalls. “In Bulgaria, too, people fall in love, get divorced. They don’t die only with knives in their backs in battles.”
“For me, the purpose of literature is to preserve the stories of that which disappears easily. That which is long-lasting, like the pharaohs and pyramids, doesn’t need literature”
While in New York, Gospodinov says he has been working on a new novel telling the history of the world from the Second World War to the present through the lens of childhood fears, largely based on stories he’s been collecting. He expects to finish it by next spring. Fears are also universal, he says, and they can tell us much about the times and societies where children experience them, just like the various versions of sorrow, melancholy and unhappiness.
“When I started writing The Physics of Sorrow, I wanted to explain why Bulgaria is an unhappy place,” Gospodinov says, “but it turned out that in the meantime, the whole world had become a place of sorrow.”