Georgi Gospodinov: ‘There was a culture of silence – it was safer not to say what you think’ | Fiction

Georgi Gospodinov: ‘There was a culture of silence – it was safer not to say what you think’ | Fiction

Bulgarian author Georgi Gospodinov, 56, won last year’s International Booker prize (with translator Angela Rodel) for his dystopian comedy Time Shelter, about an innovative dementia clinic that restages the past. His previous novel, The Physics of Sorrow, an unorthodox coming-of-age tale drawn on Greek myth and the history of communist Europe, is now published for the first time in the UK, alongside his 80-page memoir, The Story Smuggler. He lives in Sofia, Bulgaria.

What explains the fragmentary nature of your storytelling style?
I’m aware it’s not an easy kind of writing. I’ve always written on the edge of narrative expectations; I collect rejections from publishers apologising for not being able to take my work because it isn’t linear enough. But a novel doesn’t have to be a train moving from point A to point B – it can branch off, just like our thinking. I don’t know if my novels seem so stylistically radical in Bulgaria, because I have readers there who have followed my work since the 1990s; The Physics of Sorrow, which has travelled through more than 20 languages and countries, has taken almost a decade to reach UK readers.

How did the novel start life?
With the scene of a boy in the late 70s, feeling abandoned and sitting in a room as it’s starting to get dark. The parallel [that the book draws] with the minotaur of Greek mythology unlocks a strange, vast and anarchic story of the 20th century that in some ways has a lot to do with the topic of memory that surfaces in Time Shelter.

Why is
The Story Smuggler, which is subtitled “a very brief memoir”, so short? Totalitarian ideologies require monumental memories of monumental things – I believe it’s important to cultivate our memory in the opposite direction, towards things that are perishable and mortal.

Both books mention your youthful interest in the sex scene on page 28 of Mario Puzo’s novel The Godfather
People forget that under totalitarian systems there wasn’t just a deficit of goods and civil rights but a deficit of eroticism, too; this page, along with passages from a few scarce classic texts, was part of the catalogue of acceptable eroticism during our adolescence under socialism. My Spanish translator emailed to say she picked up the Spanish edition of The Godfather to quote that passage in her translation and it wasn’t there – Franco’s censorship had simply removed it. Turns out that our bashful Bulgarian socialism was more open than Francoist censorship after all; today Spanish readers are able to read that missing page of The Godfather thanks to the translation of The Physics of Sorrow from Bulgarian. Funny.

What’s Bulgaria like as a place to write?
For me, it’s a place that is alive with stories that are mostly untold because of the culture of silence that comes from communist times, when it was safer not to say what you think. My first serious publications coincided with the years after 1989, which were filled with energy and a sense of community, like a carnival. That’s been a bit lost over the years since, but the International Booker prize [win] encourages writers here that you can tell your stories in your own language and they’ll reach other people.

Tell us another Bulgarian novelist to look out for.

Joanna Elmi is a young writer whose debut, Made of Guilt, is expected to come out in the UK soon – it deals with childhood trauma during Bulgaria’s transition to democracy. Also forthcoming in translation are four novellas by Georgi Markov, who emigrated to London in the late 60s and was killed by Bulgarian and Russian secret services on Waterloo Bridge in the so-called “Bulgarian umbrella” case. He deserves to be better known by British readers as an author.

How and where do you write?
I’ve written my last two novels in Bulgaria and various other havens where I’ve been given space and time for a month or so [on writing residencies in Europe and the US]. Solitude helps. I started out writing poems on the back of bus tickets, which is good for teaching you brevity. Poetry, which I still write, is a form that doesn’t require staying a long time in a room of one’s own, the kind of room I’ve never managed to have. But when you carry a notebook, anywhere can be a room of one’s own: a cafe, a bench. That’s how I sketch my novels; my first, Natural Novel [published in translation in the US in 2005], kept that kind of notebook structure.

Name a favourite memoir.
I Remember: the one by Joe Brainard and the one by Georges Perec.

What are you reading at the moment?
I love to reread old books. Lately it’s been The Odyssey. My father passed away recently and that obviously shifts my focus; it’s a book often read for the adventure of the journey, but it’s also about a son’s search for a lost father. I also like nonfiction: The Gardener’s Handbook, advice for amateur beekeepers, that sort of thing. I’m not a beekeeper yet, but maybe one day.

The celebrated Bulgarian footballer Hristo Stoichkov compared your International Booker win to his Ballon d’Or
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 Physics of Sorrow, translated by Angela Rodel, is published by W&N (£9.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at Delivery charges may apply

The Story Smuggler, translated by Kristina Kovacheva and Dan Gunn, is published by W&N (£14.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at Delivery charges may apply

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