Translated from the Bulgarian by Angela Rodel
Open Letter Books, April 2015
Reviewed by Randy Rosenthal
In ancient Crete, King Minos’s wife Paisiphae had sex with a bull sent by the god Poseidon. Their love child had the body of a human and the head of a bull—the Minotaur. Minos was horrified but unable to kill the fruit of his wife’s infidelity, and so placed the baby Minotaur in the middle of an inescapable labyrinth. Every seven years, seven maidens and seven youths were brought into the labyrinth to be sacrificed to the Minotaur, who was feared and loathed for being a monster. Then the Athenian Theseus appeared in Crete and, seeking the love of Minos’s daughter, set off into the labyrinth corridors with a sword and ball of string, so that he wouldn’t get lost. Eventually Theseus appeared at the entrance with the murdered monster and has since been worshipped as a hero.
The myth of the Minotaur and the labyrinth has been the subject of countless works of art and literature, from Ovid and Dante to C.S. Lewis and Borges, but no one has ever asked, “What about the poor Minotaur?” The deformed child, abandoned by his parents, confined in the dark labyrinth, and then killed for being different. Hasn’t he been misunderstood? Doesn’t he deserve our sympathy? Bulgarian author Georgi Gospodinov takes this sympathetic perspective in his autobiographical novel-in-fragments, The Physics of Sorrow.
As a boy, Gospodinov apparently was also abandoned and forcibly confined. Not in a labyrinth but a concrete basement. He subsequently developed what he refers to as “the Minotaur Syndrome,” that complex shared by abandoned and neglected children. His grandfather, too, was confined to a Hungarian basement during World War Two, and the novel begins with Gospodinov reliving his grandfather’s experience. He writes as if he is his grandfather, and when he returns to Bulgaria after the war, he prefers to live in a basement. Similarly, the adult Gospodinov spends most of his days in a dark basement, writing.
The novel—if we can call it that—is an exploration of family origins that spirals inward from the past to the present and the future, but one that does not continuously move toward the center. Instead, the book’s structure itself resembles a labyrinth, frequently taking what Gospodinov refers to as “side corridors”—memories of his socialist youth among friends, notes from travel journals jotted down in European cities, musings on time capsules, and vignettes of other people’s stories that the author has “bought” and made his own. Yet none of these corridors lead anywhere. They’re dead-ends, and the author must retrace his steps through the labyrinth of his mind.
A reinterpretation of ancient Greek myth, a celebration of story telling, a treatise on nostalgia and aging, a collection of insights into the nature of time, The Physics of Sorrow has it all.