Review: Natural Novel, Georgi Gospodinov
By Erica Eller
Imagine the form and function of a grafted tree: an apple tree with a branch that produces pears. The thought brings to mind centaurs or mermaids—creatures whose human torsos are grafted onto the bodies of other animals. These images are at once amusing in their ingenuity, but haunting in their unnatural appearance. After I read Georgi Gospodinov's Natural Novel (published in Bulgarian in 1996, translated into English by Zornitza Hristova in 2005), I was immediately dazzled by its many grafted parts.
We enter into the life of a poor writer (in both senses: he's miserable and lacking money) who is getting a divorce and writing a novel about it. Later, we learn that his wife is pregnant with someone else's child. This leaves him baffled and uncertain about his own life story: "I couldn't remember ever reading about such a situation." Therefore, he writes his way through the pain. In some sense, the novel keeps moving further backward in time, as the character unearths his own history, to try to divulge a kind of mechanism for how his life had led to this baffling result, "There was a flawless, indestructible mechanism that never failed to spoil everything." And yet, the mechanism of his own destroyed marriage is inevitable. We learn that his wife always wanted a child and the novelist failed to produce an offspring with her. Soon, she's living with the father, while the divorced novelist is still grappling with the existential mire of his bafflement through writing. The book is the document of this process.
By adding this detail about his wife, we start to see how the author grafts together a mismatched ending (the divorce) and beginning (the illegitimate pregnancy). This merger is later reinforced when themes of apocalypse and genesis, or childhood and old age, butt heads in a non-linear arrangement in different chapters. An early chapter contains literary notes on the beginnings of a series of famous novels. Their author contemplates how, when listed, the novel beginnings all seem grafted onto each other, creating a highly improbable plot trajectory. Gospodinov writes:
Defining his project of miscellany early on, the author seeks to render this highly improbable assemblage within his own text, divorcing the characters from their destinies and leaving them to merge at times and become unhinged from their own stories.
By naming several of his characters after himself, the novelist grafts the real and imaginary together. The protagonist's name is the same as his editor's name (another character). However, the editor doesn't have financial problems, but he is also getting a divorce. Meanwhile, both characters' names are the same as the real author's name: Georgi Gospodinov. Broader meditations on the original naming of God in his Garden of Eden and Linnaeus' system of organism nomenclature are also scattered throughout the book. The author's proliferation of alter-egos eventually extends to include a mad gardener, the most evocative of the bunch. His wild and unruly garden exudes something so unnatural that his neighbours fear it. He, too, contemplates the nearly apocalyptic impact of the loosening tie between names and the things they are attached to: "The imbalances stalking us show up everywhere, but I think the most horrible one is the imbalance between the names of things and the things themselves. Things have started slipping out of their names like peas from a dry pod." It is as if the characters are no longer self-contained. They lose their mechanistic function within the book.
"Naturalism", with all of its connotative possibilities, provides a subtext for this literary performance. Gospodinov invokes authors of philosophical naturalism (Empedocles, Anaxagoras and Democritus), the themes of literary naturalism (depravity and everyday life), and the works of natural history (Linnaeus' writings). In doing so, he reveals how the word "natural" implies different, somewhat distinct trajectories of thought, not unlike the name "Georgi Gosphodinov" which refers to three different individuals. He allows the lines between realms of thought to blur according to a similar logic of nominal (both associated with naming, and seemingly arbitrary) associations. As we read further, we are urged to seek out an underpinning mechanism, but this keeps resolving in paradox.
It is as if the word "natural" itself is merely grafted onto the word "novel" in the title. We're led to contemplate how something inherently borne of artifice, a novel, might also be natural. This question comprises the metafictional hall of mirrors that starts to expose itself as you read. Natural Novel is a book that constantly draws its own premise to the fore, and performs its paradoxes using words, tropes and characters as allegories for the underlying themes. One can easily draw parallels to the playful stories of Jorge Luis Borges or the novels of Paul Auster. Needless to say, if you're looking for a novel with its many threads neatly resolved, you won't find it here. Though the book is short, it swells to contain references that reach far beyond the scope of ordinary fiction to philosophy, pop-culture, religion, natural history, etc.
As the novel mutates into an untenable piece of fiction, I find the beauty of the novel best summed up not by genre, but by its central image: the fly. A fly's path is indecisive, after all, and its vision, kaleidoscopic. The text has a mosaic-like structure of short chapters that tilt and shift the uses/purposes/and attributions of the epigraphs, text and story lines so that each is reminiscent of, but ultimately off-kilter from the others. What you have is an assemblage that, in sum, gives you a general impression that's as mutable as the vision of a fly, whose eye is made out of many lenses. Gospodinov makes it clear that he'd like us to interpret this as a literary device: "The fragmentation used by some novelists as a literary device is in fact borrowed from the fly's eye. What kind of novel would we get if a fly could write a story . . . " Later on, he pushes the point further: "Every fly has its idiosyncratic flight, i.e., language." Both inhuman and lowly, the fly is indecisive, distracted and led by fragmented vision, but it nevertheless produces a signature flight, distinct from all others. We are invited to interpret the book based on these terms.
In an interview with Ana Ludic, Gospodinov cites Herman Melville's Moby Dick as one of his influences. Like Moby Dick, Natural Novel amounts to a sprawling novel, but the narrative’s reach is not guided by the image of a huge submerged whale in the ocean, but by a tiny erratic fly buzzing in through air. Gospodinov points out that the novel's size is just a fraction of that of Moby Dick: "In terms of scale, Natural Novel is a fly beside Melville’s whale. (It’s no coincidence that the fly is a central image.) All kinds of genres—scientific texts, natural histories, the Bible—interest me and affect my writing." Its cast is also far more limited and tends to collapse via association into just one: the author, himself. Nevertheless, it does contain enough marginalia to send your head into a holographic maze of interpretive possibilities.
Now, I'll turn to the wider context of the novel. It is written by a previously unknown author (this is Georgi Gospodinov's first novel) from virtually unknown country in terms of world literature: Bulgaria. I don't really excel at geography. In my mind, the terms geography and literature are conflated--I file authors' names according to their country on a map in my mind. For instance, I travelled to Argentina to study Spanish in order to read Borges better. But "The language of Borges is too cosmopolitan and elitist for us!" the porteños would say, pointing out my faulty logic. I knew that already. My approach wasn't to draw parallels, but to understand the places which authors felt they must write against. In other words, I seek their point of departure into literary worlds. Writers are often dreaming themselves out of place and time (Italo Calvino) and exile can also exist within one's own borders (Fernando Pessoa). Gospodinov's text, too, embodies an "any place but here" perspective.
I knew nothing of Bulgaria until I travelled to Iğneada, a small city situated on the border between Bulgaria and Turkey this summer. Turkey had once proposed building a nuclear energy plant there, provoking local NIMBY-ism (not in my backyard). The wetlands forest is protected on both sides of the border. When I picked up Natural Novel from my stash of unread books, my shoddy geographic sensibility had found a muse in literature again. I wanted to learn something about the imaginative possibilities of the country bordering Turkey via this book.
I read it in a very short time. I liked it immediately. For anyone who has indulged in postmodern novels, this novel's tactics are quite familiar. If postmodernism were a dance, then Gospodinov would be joining, I thought, as a kind of newbie. When you imitate a dance as an outsider, the rhythms of the music are unfamiliar, but you know you'd spoil the mood if you opted out. You just make it up as you go. You hit a few of the break-beats on time, but otherwise, just wobbling through air in a mysterious way. I remember watching a bunch of jolly Germans and Brits dancing to American hip hop at a house party in Germany a few years ago.. They didn't really get the vibe. It felt like a poor imitation of an imitation (I'm showing my Platonic tendencies). But hell, they were having fun. My favorite among them was a friend who, unlike the others, could obviously "feel" the music. That's how I feel about Natural Novel. Gospodinov could "feel" the dance of postmodernism. Now, if you don't already think literature and art and culture and music themselves are xenophobic, I hope you've come to see how they might be. In this sense, he is a poser, an imposter, yet he also manages to unlock the protective gates of insularity.
In some ways it is only "natural" for a novel written in the nineties to subtly contribute to the cosmopolitan era of postmodernism. The book reminds us of the shared global familiarity to pop culture in the nineties with its references to movies like Pulp Fiction and Trainspotting. Why do we embrace it then? It's fun to read, like a literary game. We have the instructions, so let's play. The instructions don't include the requirement of a cultural heritage. The template is readily available--it contains culture you can appropriate, too. That's how it perpetuates itself.
Orhan Pamuk, Arundhati Roy, Salman Rushdie, Haruki Murakami, Jose Saramago and others have had their fates sealed by the apparent exportability of their literary works. The mere thought of such a phenomenon for literature may be difficult to swallow. These works can literally be sapped of the idiosyncracies of their original tongues and rattled through the machine of translation, just to come out sparkling, clean and untrammeled among an international readership. In fact, this international readership chooses to read without the authors' national contexts, so they expect to find amusement in the architecture of books, rather than their more subtle cultural connotations.
Yet, the lack of context leads me to search for the hidden seams that might point to a novel's grounding in culture. I'm not wholly satisfied with the postmodern ideal. And besides--what about those loose ends? Maybe this work does have some kind of significant relationship to its homeland. So, here I go down that path, with my very elementary knowledge of Bulgarian history and culture. Everything hereafter has been gleaned from Dimiter Kenarov's excellent article, "Out of Exile: Notes on Bulgarian Literature" published in Boston Review (2005).
Bulgaria's history of political regime change reads like a story written by the "exquisite corpse" method of assembling unrelated additions written by different authors who are blind to the others' words. Bulgaria went from occupation by the Ottoman Empire for over five hundred years to oppressive communist rule. After that, the economy opened up to market forces in the '80s and book stores were flooded with the work of exportable authors like Danielle Steele. While Bulgaria has almost no literary heroes to etch it a place on the map of world literature, two of France's most acclaimed post-structuralist theorists, Julia Kristeva and Tsetva Todorov, were both born and raised in Bulgaria. Kenarov describes the literary quest of Bulgaria as an effort to find itself and to "catch up" with Europe. He feels that Georgi Gospodinov's Natural Novel has the stirrings of a potential literary emergence for Bulgaria.
In describing literature of Bulgaria in the eighties and nineties, Kenarov points out that the country was in a state of flux from the strict censorship of its former communism to the freewheeling globalization of its capitalist future: "While the market economy had not yet filled the ideological vacuum and turned literature into a mere commodity, Bulgarian writers briefly attained a degree of autonomy." Perhaps it is this period of flux that Gospinov's novel seems to lay bare most evidently. Perhaps he wishes to expose how the past and future are merely grafted parts in this deceptively playful novel. Perhaps it is indeed his wariness towards the seeming irrelevance of the past to the future that sometimes makes this grafted quality so resonant. Nostalgia alone would do nothing to resolve the paradoxically unnatural flow of time and its grafted eras of history. Hence, he may have sought out a rhizomatic form (an apt botanical metaphor a la Deleuze and Guattari) to naturalize the disjointed past and to welcome a possible disjointed departure in the future.
You can find Natural Novel here.
Erica Eller is a writer and editor from the United States, living in Istanbul. She's lived in Istanbul so long that she now fuels her writing with çay instead of coffee.