Review: The Story Smuggler by Georgi Gospodinov

the-story-smugglerWhen I first read Gospodinov’s novel The Physics of Sorrow I was completely captivated by his poetic language, insightful metaphors and riveting storyline.  Despite its brevity, Gospodinov’s writing in The Story Smuggler, #29 in the Cahiers Series, is as equally lyrical and absorbing as his longer novel.  He begins his narrative with a discussion of the Bulgarian word тъга which is usually translated as “sorrow, melancholy.”  But he explains that it is really a word that means much more than “sorrow” or “melancholy” because this noun also encompasses a “longing, something unrealized, a dream of what has been lost forever or of what has never been achieved.”  Finally, he adds that this feminine noun doesn’t overwhelm us immediately, but instead creeps up on us as, “her waters are placid, her poison is slow, enfeebling.”

Gospodinov uses this Bulgarian word as a starting off point from which to reflect on all of the freedoms that he and other Bulgarians weren’t allowed to experience under a totalitarian regime.  There is a melancholic beauty to Gospodinov’s language as he describes his childhood filled with repressed and hidden sorrows:

Some smuggle cigarettes, others alcohol,—or weapons.  Our contraband, being invisible, is more dangerous.  Our contraband is undetectable by scanners.  The excess baggage that we conceal is stories, our own and those of others.  I come from a place where people are accustomed to holding their peace, or to recounting their stories in secret.  A place of unarticulated тъга—vast, hidden fields of it.

Gospodinov gives numerous examples of a longing for things that are forbidden during his boyhood in Bulgaria: cakes, chocolate, trips abroad, jeans, and pop music.  Each school child, he tells us, had an “illicit secret” notebook called a lexicon which was wrapped in colorful paper and written in with a multitude of colorful pens.  All school books were wrapped in the same white color and all notebooks were written with the same blue ink, so the decorating of their lexicons was a kind of rebellion in itself.  They would also leaving drawings, quotations, or the highly coveted images cut out from Western magazines in one another’s books.

The children would have questions listed in their lexicons and secretly pass around and answer each other’s questions.  The questions might seem rather mundane or unimportant to those of us who grew up in the West but these were all topics that Bulgarian teenagers living under Communism were not able to discuss openly: What country would you like to live in?  Do you listen to rock music? What is your favorite movie/actor/actress?  Do you have a boyfriend/girlfriend?  These lexicons were the primary means of teenagers attempting to smuggle their own stories among one another:

The lexicon was a place of escape, a refuge, a territory of not fully conscious teenage resistance and struggle for an identity of one’s own, for a profile different from the one imposed by the system.  A small personal niche, a private chamber, a secret enclave where you could see yourself wearing jeans, illegally smuggled by some long-distance lorry-driver; where you could flip through a contraband copy of Rolling Stone; where you could be a world traveler and a happy visitor of beloved Italy, France or Japan.

There is a sense that Gospondinov spends the rest of his life traveling around the world and writing in an attempt to make up for the sorrow, the  тъга, from his early years.  In the 25 short yet description chapters of The Story Smuggler he writes about trips to Germany, Iceland and England.  And he writes about his urge to write—poetry, fiction, diary entries— from a very early age. But there is a underlying feeling that he can never really recover the simple pleasures and freedoms that were denied to him throughout his formative years.

This volume was translated from the Bulgarian by Kristina Kovacheva and Dan Gunn.  The illustrations, which are also quite intriguing, are done by the Bulgarian graphic artist Theodore Ushev.

This is the first selection I have read from the Cahiers Series and I am was so impressed with the quality of writing and art work in this slim book that I ordered six more publications from the series.  I would love to know what other Cahiers that readers have enjoyed.  I would like to make my way through the entire series if all of the volumes are all as well-written as this one.

story-smuggler

A sample illustration by Theodore Uskev from The Story Smuggler

 

12 Comments

Filed under Cahier Series, Literary Fiction, Literature in Translation, Nonfiction

12 responses to “Review: The Story Smuggler by Georgi Gospodinov

  1. It sounds like I will like this better than Physics of Sorrow which I put down and never returned to. I have the three newest editions but they arrived when I was so very depressed that I was unable to focus on any of them even though they are so short.
    I’ve read Franco Nasi’s Translator’s Blues which is a lovely little metafictional tale about the art of translation. But my first introduction to the Cahier series was The Swan Whisperer by Marlene van Niekerk, illustrated by William Kentridge. It came out shortly after I returned from South Africa where I had seen a Kentridge installation. I had also read van Niekerk’s epic Agaat prior to my visit. So I ordered it the moment I saw it. Beautiful, unusual and wonderful!

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    • The Physics of Sorrow is beautifully written and I so much enjoyed his metaphor with the misunderstood Minotaur. But it is very sad and one really has to be in the right frame of mind to read it. I will have to also buy the Swan Whisperer! Thanks for the recommendations, Joe!

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  2. This sounds both eloquent and fascinating. I’m sure every language has words that are in essence untranslatable. Using them as a framework to write about a culture helps us all to understand it more

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  3. the bulgarian meaning of sorrow is sad and apt and it’s good the children could devise such a colourful defense to it, in its own way a little defence to what must have been very difficult times…
    we used to have such lexicons as teenagers too. and re use of coloured pencils & ornamental decoration of homework and so on a latin teacher once told us that when it is fun on the paper it is fun in the head. i thought he would tell us off for not being all austere in our homeworks….but i think he’s absolutely right. all kinds of colourfulness should be encouraged….
    i haven’t seen anything negative about the cahier ones (i’ve got the beckett, proust, krasznahorkai and niekerk ones). they’re all treasures in their own way….

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    • I completely agree—the more color the better, especially for teenagers who need that creative outlet. I am so glad to hear that it was a Latin teacher that encouraged your decoration of homework. I bought the Krasznaahorkai one and I really wanted the Beckett but it doesn’t seem to be available unless you buy the entire series. So I will have to see if I can find a used copy somewhere.

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  4. Sounds wonderful Melissa, and an author and publisher new to me. I shall investigate…

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I’ve heard a lot of praise for The Physics of Sorrow but I wasn’t entirely convinced by Natural Novel and that has put me off a little.
    The Cahiers books do look wonderful but they are so expensive I have never been able to bring myself to buy one!

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    • I have Natural Novel but I never went back and read it after The Physics of Sorrow. I think this Cahier is a great intro. to the author’s writing. The Cahiers Series are expensive, so I am going to try to buy a few at a time.

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  6. This writer is new to me, so thanks.
    The definition of the Bulgarian word тъга reminds me of the Portuguese “saudade”.

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