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Georgi Gospodinov stated that there was an environment of hush-hush, where it was more secure to remain quiet about one's opinions.
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Georgi Gospodinov stated that there was an environment of hush-hush, where it was more secure to remain quiet about one’s opinions.

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Georgi Gospodinov, a 56-year-old author from Bulgaria, was the recipient of the International Booker prize last year for his novel Time Shelter. The novel, which was translated by Angela Rodel, is a satirical take on a dementia clinic that recreates past memories. His previous book, The Physics of Sorrow, is a unique coming-of-age story that draws inspiration from Greek mythology and the communist history of Europe. It has recently been released in the UK, along with his 80-page memoir, The Story Smuggler. Gospodinov currently resides in Sofia, Bulgaria.

Why is your storytelling style fragmented?

I am aware that my style of writing is not easy. I have always pushed the boundaries of narrative expectations, resulting in numerous rejections from publishers who apologize for not being able to publish my work due to its non-linear nature. However, a novel does not necessarily have to follow a linear path from point A to point B. It can diverge, much like our thought processes. I am uncertain if my novels appear stylistically radical in Bulgaria, as I have readers there who have been following my work since the 1990s. It has taken almost a decade for my novel, The Physics of Sorrow, which has been translated into more than 20 languages and published in various countries, to reach readers in the UK.

What was the beginning of the novel?

In the late 1970s, a boy is depicted feeling abandoned and sitting in a darkening room. The book draws parallels to the minotaur of Greek mythology, revealing a chaotic and expansive tale of the 20th century that touches on the theme of memory explored in Time Shelter.

Why is the book “The Story Smuggler,” also known as “a very brief memoir,” so concise? Authoritarian beliefs demand extensive recollections of significant events – I think it’s crucial to focus on remembering transient and mortal things instead.

In both books, it is mentioned that you had a fascination with the sexual content on page 28 of Mario Puzo’s novel The Godfather during your youth.

Many people forget that under totalitarian systems, there was not only a shortage of goods and civil rights, but also a lack of eroticism. This page, along with excerpts from a few rare classic texts, was considered acceptable forms of eroticism during our teenage years under socialism. My Spanish translator informed me that she had acquired the Spanish edition of The Godfather in order to quote that passage in her translation, but it was not included – Franco’s censorship had removed it. It turns out that our modest Bulgarian socialism was more open than Francoist censorship. Thanks to the translation of The Physics of Sorrow from Bulgarian, Spanish readers can now read the missing page from The Godfather. How ironic.

What is the writing environment like in Bulgaria?

I am drawn to this place because it is filled with untold stories, a result of the culture of silence that was prevalent during the communist era, where speaking one’s mind was deemed unsafe. My initial significant works were published during the post-1989 years, a time filled with vitality and a feeling of unity, akin to a carnival. While this spirit has somewhat diminished over time, winning the International Booker prize reminds writers here that their stories can be shared in their native language and still reach others.

Can you recommend another Bulgarian author to keep an eye on?

Joanna Elmi is a new author whose first book, Made of Guilt, will be released in the UK soon. The book explores the effects of childhood trauma during Bulgaria’s shift to democracy. Additionally, four novellas written by Georgi Markov, who moved to London in the late 1960s and was murdered by Bulgarian and Russian secret services on Waterloo Bridge in the infamous “Bulgarian umbrella” incident, will be translated and published. Markov deserves recognition as a writer among British readers.

Where and how do you write?

My last two books were written in Bulgaria and other places where I had the opportunity to stay for about a month [on writing residencies in Europe and the US]. Being alone was beneficial. In the beginning, I wrote poems on the back of bus tickets, which taught me to be concise. I still write poetry, which doesn’t require a dedicated room to work in, something I have never had. However, with a notebook in hand, any place can become a workspace: a cafe, a bench. This is how I outline my novels; my first one, Natural Novel [published in translation in the US in 2005], followed this notebook structure.

What is your preferred autobiography?

I recall: the work by Joe Brainard and the piece by Georges Perec.

What is your current reading material?

I enjoy revisiting books from the past, currently I am reading The Odyssey. With the recent passing of my father, my attention has shifted. This book is often known for its adventurous journey, but it also touches on a son’s quest for his missing father. I am also interested in nonfiction, such as The Gardener’s Handbook and tips for novice beekeepers. Although I am not a beekeeper currently, it may be something I pursue in the future.

Hristo Stoichkov, a well-known Bulgarian soccer player, likened your victory in the International Booker competition to his own achievement with the Ballon d’Or award.
Angela and I enjoyed that. He was one of the first to congratulate us: many other famous sportsmen and actors here did too. In Bulgaria we’re not flooded with many occasions for public rejoicing, so people took the award very personally. To rejoice this way over the success of a book is wonderful. Who knows, but maybe it’s a sign that literature still means a lot here – or at least no less than football.

The book “The Physics of Sorrow”, translated by Angela Rodel, is available for purchase from W&N for £9.99. To help support the Guardian and Observer, you can order your own copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery fees may be applicable.

Source: theguardian.com