When 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.
A sample illustration by Theodore Uskev from The Story Smuggler