Georgi Gospodinov: I envisage art having a life-saving role as a machine for sense and solace13 December 2011 | 17:06 | Focus News Agency
Focus: What is the topic of your second novel “Physics of Sadness”? This book comes 12 years after your first novel – “Natural Novel”.
Georgi Gospodinov: ”Physics of Sadness” is twice the size of “Natural Novel” – it is bout 350 pages, so summarising it is pretty hard. It is the story of a boy who has the ability to empathise, to get into others’ sadness and stories. Thanks to this ability of his, we are able to watch the history of the world from the last century up until January 1 2012 through a sort of kaleidoscope. The book is full of with a lot of stories, a lot of really private stories. There is a section dedicated to the protagonist’s attempts to examine his own sadness, as well as that of the world as a whole, through the physics of elementary particle.
Focus: But why “Physics” of sadness? How did you decide on that title?
Georgi Gospodinov: Pretty hard, to be honest. I had a total of 35 different titles in mind and each one of these corresponded to a different side of the book. It was hard to find a title that combined all sides. I like “Physics of Sadness” because it clearly pointed to the topic, the novel was engaged with. Physics deals with exact, tangible things, things that surround us. And I wanted to confront exact science with the things that are inside of us. After all there is no such thing as “Physics of Sadness”. There is no physics of the most important things in life – solitude, joy, nostalgia, love. There are no exact sciences for those things. The way the world is going, people will seek salvation in things in literature, alongside physics. And at the spot we currently stand, science and the unexplained combine. You know about the latest CERN research – their tries to get hold of the so-called Particle of God, about research on elementary particles, about speeds faster than the speed of light. All this gives us the feeling that the world as we know it is about to become radically different. This is another of the book’s topics. What is now left of the world we were born in? What can we carry inside the capsule of our own body and memory? And what are we going to tell our children, who will come from another time?
Focus: Is sadness a characteristic trait of Bulgarians? You said in another interview that sadness was “untranslatable”.
Georgi Gospodinov: I do think that sadness is something you cannot translate. And Bulgarian sadness is untranslatable in a very distinct way. The very word “sadness” [тъга], the vision we have of what stands behind the word, is hard to translate on other languages. There was a survey by the Economist back in 2010, in which Bulgaria was pronounced the “saddest place in the world”. It said that Bulgarians felt like the saddest persons on Earth. This is a subjective feeling, but it is exactly subject feelings that are the most important. After all, my main character is telling his story from this very place, the saddest place of all. And he is trying to deal with all his sadness. Or at least get his sadness in order and describe it. If you tell about a certain sadness of yours, it becomes a bit lighter.
Focus: Are there any other untranslatable topics in Bulgarian literature and what are they?
Georgi Gospodinov: Translatability is not so much a problem of the topic, but of the way we speak and think about it. Yes, we are sometimes too local, we have turned our backs to the world with the feeling it has turned its back to us, as well. And often this feeling is quite true. But, then again, this is our problem, too, and we cannot be and at the world. If we want to convey Bulgarian topics on universal speak, we should tell about them from a personal perspective, privately through ourselves. And what is required to this end is just talent and hard work on every single word, on every sentence, on every page. This is the only way we could make sadness translatable, since it is not only Bulgarian. Ours might be a bit different, slower and harsher, but the protagonist of “Physics of Sadness” travels and sees that sadness is slowly overwhelming Europe. This is a global problem, not less important than global warming or dwindling oil reserves.
Focus: ”Natural Novel” describes the 90s and you said that “Physics of Sadness” follows the whole 20th century. How would you describe the latest decade, the one we are living in?
Georgi Gospodinov: This is the hardest decade to describe, the hardest one to understand. I think there is a going to be some sort of a turnaround in this decade. And literature will remain important, as will any other means of art. Because the world of today needs solace. There used to be such a genre in Antiquity – solace. Literature will be valued as a slow media, people will understand how important slowness is, how important things we have neglected in the last 3 or 4 decades are. This first decade of the new century was one of chaotic search of meaning. We ourselves are looking for meaning and reasons to go on living. We no longer expect too many things to happen in the future. Currently, I think what we need is rationalisation, we need sense, stories, we need to tell stories. In “Physics of Sadness” I mention Scheherazade and the Labyrinth of the Minotaur – two myths that uphold this novel. Scheherazade’s trick lays in the fact that in literature stories provide meaning and save us, they give us one more life to live. I really believe in literature’s bright future, as much as this might sound too radical or indeed stupid in the moment.
Focus: Did you support the initiative for revival of the Bulgarian libraries? Do you see any way of attracting people’s attention back to books?
Georgi Gospodinov: Yes, of course I supported the initiative. I think that libraries should be transformed into pleasant and bright places, where people would gather, if they want with their laptops even, and work until late at night. I gave an example with a library in Germany, which I had seen full of young people at 11 pm, as they were drinking coffee, reading, and working in the lobbies and rooms. The library must become a place, where people gather and spend time together, and not only a dark and cool place, where lonely people turn the pages of books.
Focus: Is the government paying enough attention to science, culture, and the spirit of Bulgarians? In this line of thoughts, do you support the protests of scientists from the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences (BAS) and the ones of students?
Georgi Gospodinov: I myself work in the Institute for Literature with the BAS and I support the protests. I think that each country, especially during a crisis, must invest in culture and science, because during crisis people remain without supporting points. Science and culture are two things that could help us and give us a new meaning and rescue. Let us take for example the Institute for Literature – there are such institutions all over the world. There are places where such institutions are closer to universities, which could be a solution for the situation in Bulgaria, but such institutions are vital. Each government must be constantly reminded that culture is something that does not only come down to monuments. Culture is something right here and right now. If children in school savagely beat up other children, if we do not have a single book in our home – these are questions of culture, too. If the government has to think of how to invest in culture – it must invest in everyday culture, and this includes culture of reading, i.e. modern and accessible places for reading.
Focus: You travel abroad a lot. What is people’s attitude towards literature in other countries, and what part of their daily lives does it take?
Georgi Gospodinov: I go where my books go. Fortunately, Natural Novel was published in almost all European languages and I met a lot of people in cities around Europe. Yes, we must admit that they read more than us. But the attitude of media towards literature there is completely different. The biggest and most widespread newspapers there are not tabloids. This is a paradox, I know. Such newspapers have more than 100 pages and are published on weekends, and they have around 30 pages set aside for culture with very vast and serious articles. In these countries the media dictate the values of the people. If you tell me one Bulgarian daily, which publishes serious analyses of literature, ballet, cinema, opera, or has a message from a writer, musician, or another artist on its front page, I would be very happy, but unfortunately there is no such one.
Focus: What are your hopes and fear for the young people you work with? You meet many students, too, as you teach in two universities.
Georgi Gospodinov: I have more hopes for them than fears. I am still at an age, at which I cannot talk about myself and the youths in different categories. I meet very interesting people and this is very important for me. If you lose interest in things from life, literature, and meaningful things in general – this means you are lost. However, I meet very young people, who are very interesting and this fills me with hope.
My fears are that I might have a radical misunderstanding with my students. They are different, and we must accept them the way they are. They might not read the books we want them to read, and maybe they do not even read paper books. Nevertheless, reading is more important than its carrier.
Focus: How is Bulgarians’ literature taste shifting after the changes?
Georgi Gospodinov: The nice thing about it is that in the last 7 or 8 years we have seen new bookstores opening, we have seen full halls for book premieres. There is a desire among young Bulgarians to publish novels, to live the life of a writer. And this is nice since it shows that literature is still a value. On the other hand, we have seen genres in literature developing. We now have writers that know they are writing a certain type of literature, a commercial type of literature, where action is important and not the language. Having a “good commerce” is necessary, as well. What I did not like, was seeing boundaries, criteria, and assessment getting diluted.
Focus: Where should we seek salvation from the economic crisis? You said we could find it in science.
Georgi Gospodinov: Salvation lies in us understanding that the economic crisis is not solely economic and that the exhaustion of basis things, like human culture and civilisation, lies behind it. This is a crisis of civilisation, not just of economy. This is why I envisage art’s life-saving role as a machine for sense and solace. Things, that we think have long ago happened, will be happening – very simple things. We will be moving towards a new type of ecology – not just of environment, but of men, if we really want to survive.
Focus: What is the thing that provides a reason for a writer to go on in the XXI century?
Georgi Gospodinov: The fact that by writing a book and telling a story, you could gather people who you might otherwise never meet. But this way you could be together with them for a single night or one afternoon. These are a sort of invisible societies between the readers of one and the same story, between those who seek meaning in literature.
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