Georgi Gospodinov: Creating Meaning and Lenin’s Ear

We are currently experiencing a crisis similar to the one related to the depletion of natural resources—a crisis of exhaustion of meaning, wrote Georgi Gospodinov in his collection of essays Invisible Crises (2012). And as an alternative source of language energy, he proposed a sphere that deals with the constant production and renewal of meanings—literature.

Recently, one of the students in my literature class said that when she read Gospodinov, she had the impression that he could very well have been a writer from another European country. She probably touched on something that is characteristic for this artist, amply drawing both on the memory of his childhood spent in a communist country and on the realities of contemporary Bulgaria, but he puts these experiences on a broader plain, ‘translating’ the local area into the language of universal experience. As one critic once said, Gospodinov is a Bulgarian writer who is also a global writer.

The Bulgarian’s books have been translated all over the world, and there are film adaptations based on them: the Oscar-nominated animated films Blind Vaysha (2017) and The Physics of Sorrow (2019) directed by Theodor Ushev. Gospodinov’s strategy of chipping into actual and mental divisions, but also of widening the boundaries of literary activity can be seen in his novel The Physics of Sorrow, in which Bulgarian themes expand and merge with the sphere of myth, resulting in a polyphonic, multithreaded story about the Minotaur, which is at the same time a treatise on European melancholy and the labyrinths of language, in which people wander around and cannot communicate.

An inexhaustible trove for Gospodinov’s work is his childhood, perceived by the writer as a period of innocence, but also as a huge work of imagination. It is not accidental that the author’s books feature a child hero—a little boy. The author himself was born in 1968 and spent his early years in the town of Yambol in south-eastern Bulgaria. Among Bulgarian cultural centers, Yambol is a peripheral city, also known as ‘the countryside’. This is what Bulgarians usually call all the places outside Sofia.

Yambol is an unusual place, however, in many ways. It is here, at the beginning of the twentieth century, that people and initiatives were born that brought about something new and unique, both for Bulgarian culture and further afield. This is where the Bulgarian painter George Papazoff came from: he later worked and died in Paris, and Kokoschka called him “a surrealist before the surrealists”. The city was also the seat of the only futuristic magazine in Bulgaria, Crescendo, with a circle of great avant-garde artists-cum-anarchists gathered around it.

Already in his first collection of poems, you can see what he will later reveal in prose: the importance of detail, attention to the everyday world and the equal status of great and small stories.

Great and Small Stories are Equal

Gospodinov began with poetry, which he still writes today, alternating it with prose. Already in his first collection of poems, you can see what he will later reveal in prose: the importance of detail, attention to the every- day world and the equal status of great and small stories. The collection entitled A Cherry Tree of a Certain Nation is built around two symbols of being Bulgarian. The first is the story of the defeat of the Bulgarian uprising against Ottoman rule, for the eponymous cherry tree is the one from which the Bulgarians—as Ivan Vazov writes in his novel Under the Yoke, the cornerstone of Bulgarian national mythology—were to build a cannon to fight against the Ottomans. However, next to the cannon, Gospodinov places a second symbol—a cherry compote, symbolising Bulgarian non-historicity, a world of the everyday and ordinary affairs, which, according to the author, is also extremely emblematic for Bulgarians.

Gospodinov entered the world of prose not only as an excellent poet, aware of the mechanisms of language but also as a professional researcher with a doctorate in Bulgarian literature. In the 1990s, together with a group of fellow poets and literary scholars, he created a dynamic group that identified with postmodernism. After the stuffy decades spent behind the Iron Curtain, this trend, imported from the West, was a breath of freedom for Bulgarian humanities and literature of the time. Gospodinov co-wrote two hoax books, playing a postmodernist game with the classics of Bulgarian literature.

The author was also interested in the period before 1989 as a source of literary inspiration, as evidenced by the publication I’ve Experienced Socialism, which collects 171 personal stories, and by the Inventory Book of Socialism written with Yana Genova, its protagonists being cult objects and artefacts related to the times of socialism, from food products to matchboxes.

Gospodinov entered the world of prose not only as an excellent poet, aware of the mechanisms of language but also as a professional researcher with a doctorate in Bulgarian literature.

All the Anarchy in People’s Heads

Natural Novel, Gospodinov’s first prose work, has been translated 30 times worldwide, becoming the most frequently translated contemporary Bulgarian novel. The idea of the book is already evident from the title: it is to place in a novel such things that are usually left out from it. This is why the work features toilets, flies, ancient philosophy, personal and eavesdropped stories, the possible beginnings of a novel, that is, all the anarchy that resides in people’s heads and is not reflected in literature. In the foreword to the tenth Bulgarian edition of the book, Gospodinov writes that this book would not have been possible in a decade other than the 1990s, this being a time full of contradictions: on the one hand difficult, on the other hand, an opening being a time of tearing down walls, political divisions, but also a creative, opening moment for a language that opened up to new possibilities.

I remember that when I first went on a six-month scholarship to Sofia around 2000, the presence of literature in people’s lives was visible to the naked eye. I met many people who were professionals: librarians, journalists, teachers, scientists, and at the same time, they were poets—not amateurs, but regularly publishing successive volumes, which I could easily find on display in Sofia bookstores. One of the many street booksellers in Sofia (also a poet, as it later turned out) once invited me to a poetry party. I was prepared for a typical reading with a division into the audience and the protagonists of the evening, but I found myself in a famous music club that was bursting at the seams. Poets read their poetry to live music, and the audience reacted enthusiastically to each verse. One of the poets who read his work was Georgi Gospodinov.

Gospodinov’s literary idea is to create a total work of art, reflecting ambiguity, polyphony, but also the fragmentary nature of our perception of the surrounding world.

The Power to Restore Life

Gospodinov likes to compare books with Noah’s ark or a time capsule, to which the most important things are taken in order to take a journey into the future as a material record, a testimony of your times, intended for future generations. Therefore, all types and genres of literature should be included in the ark/capsule—Gospodinov’s literary idea is to create a total work of art, reflecting ambiguity, polyphony, but also the fragmentary nature of our perception of the surrounding world. Pure genres are not an option because, as one of the protagonists of his books says, “the novel is not an Aryan”. But one key to choosing things and facts for the time capsule is the word ‘impermanence’.

The writer is interested in the fragile and ephemeral matter, which usually does not live to see its story being told and there is a threat of oblivion hanging over it. The protagonist of The Physics of Sorrow, able to relive the thoughts and past of others, has a highly developed, multiplied ability of empathy. Doesn’t the Bulgarian writer sound like a variant of the figure of the tender narrator, i.e. a storyteller who empathizes with his characters, about whom Olga Tokarczuk recently spoke in her Nobel Prize speech? It is worth noting that it was Tokarczuk, with whom Gospodinov is friends, who wrote the blurb to the Polish edition of The Physics of Sorrow, describing it as a poignant study of a myth that happens always and everywhere.

Gospodinov considers it one of the principles of his writing that he looks at and vindicates what is usually ignored—peripheral stories. Understood in this way, literature can be a space with the power to restore life. According to Gospodinov’s logic, more important than the historical records of the five centuries of Ottoman rule in Bulgaria, about which knowledge is common, are the little individual stories, cast in the modes of great tales.

For the Bulgarian writer, small stories not only vindicate individual human fates, but also become a way to fill in empty spaces or significant historical silences.

Love for the Weaker and Openness to their Stories

One glorification of small stories can be found in Gospodinov’s essay about the year 1968. When Warsaw Pact troops were preparing for the invasion of Czechoslovakia, writes the author, his aunt rehearsed a mobile silhouette of Lenin at the National Stadium, to be shown at the socialist youth convention. Since the most talented girls had been selected for the head arrangement, my aunt proudly recalled years later that she had been part of Lenin’s ear. In the same essay, Gospodinov also writes about his father, who was afraid to say anything in defence of the Czechoslovaks in 1968, because he had heard that in the case of mobilization all Warszawa cars—and he was the owner of one of them—were to be transformed into small armoured cars and their drivers automatically turned into tankers.

Thus, for the Bulgarian writer, small stories not only vindicate individual human fates but also become a way to fill in empty spaces or significant historical silences, as the above examples concerning 1968, which, as Gospodinov writes in The Physics of Sorrow, never happened in Bulgaria. As part of restoring the language of what did not happen, the author also does not omit 1989, when after the official announcement of the end of communism on 10 November 1989, no one in Bulgaria took to the streets to express their joy—as if they did not believe it, but also feared that in a few days’ time, after all, someone might again say that this was not true and punish those showing excessive enthusiasm.

And here we enter another sphere of Gospodinov’s story: the story of insignificance, of which he is an attentive chronicler, is also a story about the insignificance of the Bulgarians themselves, whom the author likes to call the saddest nation in the world, but also one haunted by the feeling that nobody understands it and nobody knows it. The Bulgarian rebels in the kitchen so that nobody can hear him, said Gospodinov in an interview for Gazeta Wyborcza after receiving the ANGELUS Central European Literature Award for The Physics of Sorrow in the Polish translation by Magdalena Pytlak.

In 2016, just before the British referendum on Brexit, Gospodinov wrote a text for the Austrian daily Der Standard about the European wave of crises: ecological, religious, economic, including the crisis of the story of Europe itself. In Gospodinov’s opinion, the increasingly often heard narratives about Europe should not be constrained to the language of politics or economics, as is currently the case when it is argued that a united Europe is no longer as it used to be and has no future. As experts on Europe, the Bulgarian writer names Kafka, Woolf, Chekhov or Mann, authors who give us the necessary lessons on empathy, the most European of all values. According to Gospodinov, love for the weaker and openness to their stories is our task—it is so much harder to hurt or kill someone after listening to his or her stories. “The impossibility of an island” is the title of the text. In the world we live in, no one should be a lonely island anymore, but should feel part of a larger, common land.

Sylwia Siedlecka

(born 1980) is a writer and researcher of Bulgarian and Czech culture. She works at the Institute of Western and Southern Slavic Studies at the University of Warsaw. She is the author of a non-fiction book on Bulgaria entitled Złote piachy (2019), a collection of short stories Szczeniaki (2010), a monograph entitled Poganka i intelektualistka: Bohaterki Błagi Dimitrowej (2012) and co-editor of the collection Zmiana ram: Instytucje po 1989 roku w Europie Środkowo-Wschodniej i na Bałkanach (2019).

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