Never ask a Bulgarian, “How are you?” He’ll wince at the question, his mouth will turn down at the corners, and he’ll begin to catalogue his ailments, his misfortunes, and the infuriating things his neighbor’s done.
Georgi Gospodinov, one of Bulgaria’s most celebrated contemporary novelists—and, with his work appearing in roughly 20 languages, certainly one of its most translated—addresses his protagonist’s distaste for the innate hypocrisy of a question no one actually wants to hear the answer to in his latest novel, The Physics of Sorrow (released in English by Open Letter Books):
“I needed a new Shield of Achilles against bullshit . . . How are you? I’m not.”
In Chicago for the first time ever on September 17 to read from his novel at the Seminary Co-op, Gospodinov should arrive to something resembling a homecoming, not because he’s ever been here, but because the Chicago area is home to an enormous Bulgarian population; close to a million people left the country in a mass exodus following the fall of communism in 1989.
A finalist for both the Strega Europeo and Gregor von Rezzori awards, in addition to being a critical and commercial success in its native country, The Physics of Sorrow sees Gospodinov taking a deconstructed approach to narrative and underscoring the absurdity of life in general by jumping across time and space to craft a story of brief, evocative episodes that mostly take place in “the saddest place on earth,” as the Economist called Bulgaria in 2010.
Garth Greenwell, writing for the New Yorker, notes about Sorrow: “Chronicling everyday life in Bulgaria means trying to communicate Bulgarian ‘sadness,’ which is—to the extent that these things can be disentangled—as much a linguistic as a metaphysical dilemma.”
So why did so many melancholy Bulgarians come to Chicago after all? Gospodinov ventured a guess in a recent e-mail interview: “I think above all it must be because of the classic travel piece by Aleko Konstantinov, To Chicago and Back, written more than a hundred years ago.”
There is a sort of romanticized image of the faraway, industrialized Chicago at the turn of the last century in Konstantinov’s rendering, although there is also a quite horrific account of the author witnessing mass cattle killings at Chicago’s Armour packing house.
“I would be very curious to see if the Chicago slaughter houses Konstantinov details in the piece still exist,” adds Gospodinov.
It isn’t all melancholy in Sorrow—the tone goes from heartbreaking to hilarious in the matter of a breath, and Gospodinov’s style is so light on the page that the writing possesses an almost magical haze. The contrast to its origins is also palpable—there might be nothing light or magical about food and electricity shortages in the throes of communism, but therewith lies Gospodinov’s mastery. He never tells us what to feel.
So, from the perspective of a Bulgarian, why might America still be the last best hope?
“Probably because of her myth,” Gospodinov answers. “From her discovery she’s an euphoria, a metaphor, a mistake, a legend, some sort of strange India. And we mustn’t undervalue legends. The famous Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa says, ‘Myth is the nothing that is all.’ Perhaps that could be America’s tagline.”
Gospodinov will appear for a reading on Thu 9/17 at 6 PM at Seminary Co-op, 5751 S. Woodlawn, 773-752-4381, semcoop.com, free with RSVP.