Natural Novel, by Georgi Gospodinov (originally published in 1999, English translation 2005 by Zornitsa Hristova, Dalkey Archive Press)
“People take pictures of each other just to prove that they really existed”
Georgi Gospodinov’s first novel begins not with the Kinks lyric quoted above (that shows up on page 55), but with an epigraph from Foucault about naming the visible. The narrator (or one of the narrators; see below for more about that) of Natural Novel claims to be writing about what is present in the world, but the book is actually about letting things (both visible and invisible) remain un-named. This is a novel of avoidance, of side-stepping, and the Foucault epigraph is the opening gambit in the book’s strategy of not-saying. Gospodinov pretends that his theme is that of facts, but instead of giving us facts he constructs a tangle of overlapping post-modernist structures designed to conceal.
It’s not even certain at what level Gospodinov exists within the narrative. There are several layers to the story (similar, perhaps, to the multiple authorial levels of Don Quixote), and there are several characters called Georgi Gospodinov: first there is the author of the novel held in the reader’s hands; next there is the Gospodinov of the “editor’s note” beginning on page 6, who claims to have been mailed a hand-written manuscript written by yet another Georgi Gospodinov, who may or may not be the author of one (or more) strands of the narrative. Adding to this confusion are multiple versions of the central story (in which a writer divorces his wife when he learns that she is pregnant by another man) that subtly contradict one another in the details. Interleaved between chapters about the divorce are recurring digressions told by possibly more versions of Georgi Gospodinov: a social history of toilets (public and private), the life experience and religion of flies, the writing of novels made only of beginnings or only of verbs, and the approach of some kind of apocalypse.
Where do all of these clever overlapping games take us? Always, back to the opening sentence: We are getting a divorce. This is a novel about divorce, the writer’s refusal to speak about it directly, and his collapse beneath the emotional weight of it. This sounds pretty bleak, but one of the narrative strategies Gospodinov has picked up (maybe from Shakespeare, to judge by the “Hamlet” and “King Lear” references) is that of joking about all of it, making light from the darkness:
I was picturing all of our wedding guests now coming to the divorce. The two rituals are related, right? It would be appropriate to get the same witnesses now. At least this would save us the awkwardness of having to inform each one that we have broken up, that I no longer answer the same phone, etc. I also pictured our relatives crying at hearing us answer the judge with a ‘peremptory and irreversible’ yes. But they cried at the wedding, too.
Gallows humor, maybe, but still comedy. Gospodinov also lets himself follow the odd stray idea, giving us some extraordinary miniatures:
When I was nine, God came to me disguised as a lightbulb. I was on a school trip to Sofia. After the zoo we were taken to the Alexander Nevski Cathedral, maybe because we were close and it was starting to rain. […] It was really impressive inside and we were wary of getting lost. While we were waiting for the others to come out, a crippled old man came to us and started telling us about God. The more loud-mouthed kids immediately informed him that God didn’t exist, or Gagarin and the other astronauts would have met him long ago. The old man just shook his head and said God was like electricity–it exists but you cannot see it, it flows and makes everything work. Shortly afterwards the teachers came out and took us away from the old man. But his words made us think. God and electricity were equally vague to us, yet I immediately blurted out to the teacher that God lived in lightbulbs. There was another school trip the next year, this time to the biggest water power station in the country, for educational purposes. We were shown huge coils, gears and motors and we were told that this was where electricity came from. The teacher took me aside and asked whether I still believed in that rubbish about God and electricity. I was a big boy now so I said no. And yet, at home I was always extra careful when I turned on the lamp or the hotplate. God blinded and scorched.
For such a short book, there are a lot of digressions. The author is saying all of this as a way of avoiding the subject: his divorce, and what drove his wife to the other man. When he tries to focus on relationships, he finds himself giving his ear to overheard conversations and feuds between Enlightenment Age natural historians. Gospodinov’s claim that he’s “trying to record everything” he sees comes on the heels of a childhood episode where
I was trying to use a technique of ‘transposition.’ I fixed my gaze on something in the room and tried to transport myself there. I’m not in the room anymore, I’m the fly down on the windowsill over there and nobody notices me. I have no other goal but to walk the pane. And I do it diligently.
Natural Novel is not writing as natural history, it’s writing as ‘transposition,’ a way of the author absenting himself.
In a book with so many narrative styles and interruptions, it’s predictable that some of the ideas will be less successful than others, and so a few of the episodes fall flat. The chapters about God are mostly simplistic and obvious (though the bit above about electricity is good, as is the chapter describing the Bible of the flies), but most of the material is surprising and beguiling. The long section excerpted from the journal of a Gospodinov who rents a rural house and begins gardening as a way of describing the coming apocalypse is just brilliant. This version of the narrator spends months or possibly years arranging trees and flowers, to prophesy in a language unspoken by man, meanwhile writing urgent warning letters to the United Nations, in prose so vague and coded that nobody can understand him. The novel we’re reading is filled with allegories of itself. The novel is either an allegory of the opening chapter of the Book of Genesis, or claims Genesis as an allegory of itself. It’s not clear which way this claim points.
“I wish somebody had said: This novel’s good, because everything is uncertain in it.”
So goes the epigraph to Chapter 6. Everything is uncertain in Natural Novel, with the possible exception of Gospodinov’s talent and his awareness of how writing a novel works. There’s a marvelous passage describing an experimental writer who labors away at new ideas, and just when the project is almost complete, the writer stumbles upon a much earlier work by another author that uses the very techniques and forms our writer was so proud to think he’d invented.
“Words had tricked me once again. While I was gathering flowers, happy to be doing something yet unknown…”
Despite the formal games, the jokes, the unreliable narrator(s) and the refusal to face the subject of the story, Natural Novel is a success, an impressive bit of work. The structure of interruptions and the disconnect between story strands can come off initially as just showing off, but the inventions (original to Gospodinov or not) all push continually toward the book’s real emotional heart, a natural history of guilt and regret. This novel’s good because everything is uncertain in it.
Georgi Gospodinov was born in 1968 in Yambol. He is a poet, writer and playwright, one of the most-translated Bulgarian authors after 1989. His poetry received among others the National Debut Prize (Lapidarium, 1992), and the Best Book of the Year Prize from the Bulgarian Writers’ Association. His Natural Novel (1999) has gained international acclaim. It has been translated so far into 20 languages. His volume of short stories, And Other Stories (2001, Northwestern University Press, Translators: Alexis Levitin and Magdalena Levy), has been translated into seven languages. Gospodinov has written several plays and screenplays for short feature films, a graphic novel and a collection of essays. He edited two books with collections of ordinary people’s memories of socialist times. His second novel, The Physics of Sorrow, won several awards in Bulgaria and abroad after its publication in 2011 and has been so far translated into 12 languages. The English translation (by Angela Rodel) was published by Open Letter Books in 2015. An animated short film based on his short story Blind Vaysha was nominated for a 2017 Academy Award. Gospodinov has a Ph.D. and is a researcher at the Literature Institute of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences. He is presently a Fellow of the Cullman Center at the New York Public Library where he is working on a novel about the childhood fears of different generations.
Zornitsa Hristova is a Bulgarian translator, journalist and author of children’s books. In 2010, she created her own publishing house “Tochitsa” for entertaining and educational children’s literature. Born in Dobrich, she graduated in English Philology at Sofia University St. Kliment Ohridski. She specialized in Oxford in Postcolonial literature, with an emphasis on contemporary Indian literature in English. Zornitsa Hristova has translated in Bulgarian language authors such as Evelyn Waugh, John Lanchester, Julian Barnes, Jhumpa Lahiri, Martin Amis, Gilbert Keith Chesterton, John Irving, Don DeLillo, Tony Judt , Jerome K. Jerome, Melissa Bank, Tom Wolfe, Joseph Brodsky. In 2010, Hristova received the Art Translation Award from the Union of Translators in Bulgaria for her translation of the novel “White Noise” by Don DeLillo. She won the national award “Hristo G. Danov” for Children’s books twice. Zornitsa Hristova lives in Sofia.
Scott Bailey is an American writer, university administrator, and book blogger (https://sgfbailey.blogspot.com). “The Astrologer“, Bailey’s first novel, is a postmodern Shakespearean alternative history, published in 2013. He is currently finishing up a collection of short stories based on the life and works of Anton Chekhov. Bailey lives and works in Seattle, Washington.
Photos: Contemporary Bulgarian Writers; Yana Lozeva; Scott Bailey
This blog post is part of #BulgarianLiteratureMonth