‘To Begin at the Beginning’ by Javier Marías & ‘The Story Smuggler’ by Georgi Gospodinov (Review)

img_5544It’s always a pleasure to see the latest review copies from The Cahiers Series drop through my letterbox, but the most recent additions to the collection took that emotion up a notch.  As well as a personal piece by a writer I’ve been meaning to get to for some time now, there was a fascinating description of the art of factualising fiction, and vice-versa, from one of my favourite writers, with the bonus of a look behind the scenes with a world-famous translator for good measure.  Too good to be true, you say?  In the world of the forty-page high-quality chapbook, anything is possible – and here’s the proof 😉

The Story Smuggler (translated by Kristina Kovacheva and Dan Gunn) is Bulgarian writer Georgi Gospodinov’s personal take on youth, writing and the untranslatable concept of Тъга (‘taga’), a sense of melancholy that pervades his native land.  Over twenty-five brief chapters, he examines his life and career, allowing the reader a glimpse into young Georgi’s experiences behind the Iron Curtain and showing the influences that helped make him a writer.

Before we go any further, though, we need to find out a little more about Тъга:

It is not sadness, nor exactly sorrow, nor is it melancholy.  The word cannot be translated into English without the entire Slavic concept behind it.  In Тъга there is longing, something unrealised, a dream of what has been lost forever or of what has never been achieved.  Тъга does not overwhelm you all at once, it doesn’t topple you like a wave; her waters are placid, her poison is slow, enfeebling.
p.17 (Sylph Editions, 2016)

While other languages have similar concepts, he argues, such as the Portuguese saudade, these have the sense of a longing for what once was, what we’ve lost.  Тъга, on the other hand, is a desolate sense of missing what never was in the first place…

It’s an appropriate emotion for Gospodinov’s home environment.  He skilfully sketches out a youth spent in a country where colour was in short supply, the schoolkids’ scrapbook ‘lexikons’ furtive attempts to bring the rainbow into a rather monochrome existence.  It’s little wonder that the poet in the boy tends towards the morose, producing a piece dominated by thoughts of the passing of time and death (causing the visiting state-sanctioned poet to angrily berate the child and the teacher for not following the approved themes of sunrise, the mother party and the dove of peace!).

In such a society, ideas, like western goods, need to be smuggled in, and the concept of the img_5546smuggler permeates the writer’s memories.  We learn of people smuggling babies’ belly buttons across the border (in the superstitious hope that the child will one day follow it abroad), bibles hidden in dictionaries and even historical examples, with monks smuggling their feelings into the books they transcribe in the form of marginalia.  The young Georgi, longing for treats unavailable in his home land, even attempts to smuggle cakes out of his dreams – alas, this contraband never makes it past the stern border guards of the waking mind…

Gospodinov’s most recent novel in English, The Physics of Sorrow (translated by Angela Rodel, published by Open Letter Books) is a book I’ve long been thinking about trying, and reading The Story Smuggler has only tempted me further.  It’s a beautiful little piece, elegantly written with a wry humour throughout, and if one of the aims of these Cahiers is to get you to go on and explore more of the author’s work, then (in this case, at least) it’s a job well done 🙂

Unlike Gospodinov, however, Javier Marías is a writer whose path I’ve crossed many times before, and his contribution to the Cahier series, To Begin at the Beginning (translated by long-time collaborator – and story smuggler? – Margaret Jull Costa) is one I had been looking forward to reading for a long time.  It’s a relatively short piece, even by Cahier standards, in which the Spanish writer muses on his preference for fiction over reality, and his opinion of life itself as a mediocre novelist.  While doing so, he discusses his own approach to fiction, where we learn that he is loath to think too far ahead in his writing and doesn’t like to look back to change what he’s already written – in fact, a lot like real life…

img_5545Cleverly, though, much of To Begin at the Beginning is a story within a story, with Marías constantly interrupting himself to talk about the life and times of ‘the first novelist in his family’.  His Great-Grandfather, Enrique Manera y Cao, was a man with many books published (even if most have vanished) and a curious history involving a voyage across the ocean and a curse spanning generations.  Then, the writer goes on to discuss the use of another of his dead relatives, an uncle murdered during the Spanish Civil War, in his work, debating the ethical issues of the use of real photographs to bring (semi-) fictional characters to life…

Marías appears to be setting his stall out from the first line:

It’s hard to explain why I spend so many hours writing.  It’s perhaps even harder to explain why I spend those hours writing mere inventions or fabulations, and why it is that, when I do borrow elements from reality, instead of simply describing them exactly as they were or as they happened, I attribute them to non-existent characters and mix them up with or insert them into a wholly-fictitious story, as if I wanted to dilute or infect the actual events with fiction.
p.5 (Sylph Editions, 2016)

In truth, though, he delights in mixing fact and fiction, and we’re never quite sure what his main focus is here.  By the end of the Cahier, all we know for sure is that there’s a little bit of Marías in here, a lot of his ancestors and a huge dollop of poetic licence – which is just the way he likes it.

As mentioned above, Marías’ contribution is a little shorter than usual, but that’s a blessing in disguise as it means Jull Costa is able to leap into the breach and fill the gap with her reflections on the difficulties of translating the Spanish writer’s work.  She uses examples both from the Cahier and from Marías’ novels, in particular focusing on the lengthy sentences and the switch in register he enjoys (best shown here by the ludicrous ‘scatalogical’ rap performed by the character de la Garza in the final volume of the Your Face Tomorrow trilogy).  Perhaps the most interesting comment here, however, is her emphasis on the need for a good memory, given Marías’ liking for recycling phrases and quotations across chapters and even novels – I’m glad to hear that I’m not the only one to spend a lot of time wondering where I’d heard certain phrases before…  All in all, an excellent post-script to a vignette Marías admirers will love 🙂


16 thoughts on “‘To Begin at the Beginning’ by Javier Marías & ‘The Story Smuggler’ by Georgi Gospodinov (Review)

    1. Thanks for the great reviews.

      My attempt to be a Marias completist temporarily thwarted again and another to add to the TBR pile.

      Would definitely recommend The Physics of Sorrow (https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/1347020639) – at times it feels a bit overstuffed with ideas but it’s a wonderful read. Winstonsdad – have you read any others of his e.g. Natural Novel and are they of the same high standard.


      1. Paul – I’ve still got a fair few to try, and the relative disappointment of the most recent novel won’t put me off trying! Keen to try ‘The Physics of Sorrow’, just need to make some time for it at some point…


        1. My rankings of those I’ve read if it helps choose (although no 7 would be lower on your list)

          1 A Heart so White
          2 Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me
          3 Dark Back of Time
          4-6 Your Face Tomorrow – volumes 1-3 (can’t really split them)
          7 Thus Bad Begins
          8 All Souls
          9 The Man of Feeling
          10 The Infatuations
          11 Written Lives
          12 When I was Mortal
          13 Bad Nature, or with Elvis in Mexico
          14 While the Women are Sleeping
          15 Voyage Along the Horizon


          1. Paul – Funnily enough, most of the ones I have yet to read fall below your final line 😉 For me, though, YFT would be at the top (although a reread of ‘A Heart So White’ might shake that opinion…).


            1. YFT is clearly magisterial in ambition and scope, but I think 1 & 2 did much the same thing but in less pages, and benefited from me having read them first so the ideas and style was more originally striking. And Dark Back of Time was a wonderful meta-fictional surprise, and of course underpins YFT.

              The below the line ones are really for Marias completists (*) only – but then everyone should be a Marias completist.

              [* There must be a better term for reading someone’s entire works, but I don’t know what it is]

              Liked by 1 person

    2. Stu – They’re lovely books, and I’ve been lucky enough to amass a small collection now (still a few on my shelves I haven’t got to yet).


  1. I have these books, still safely packed away. They arrived when I was fighting a serious depression, and I started on the Marías but could not concentrate. I think the first one I will read is the Gospodinov. I’m interested in reading him in short form. I’ve not had luck with The Physics of Sorrow yet, it is magic realism and one can tell from the beginning that it will be, as one of the comments above said, “overstuffed with ideas.” But scenes from the 50 pages that I did get through have stayed with me so I would like to try something else.


    1. Joe – And what’s wrong with being overstuffed with ideas (better than having none at all!). I suspect this one will be a little different – it’s amusing in parts, but mostly played with a straight bat (if that very British idiom means anything to you).


      1. Sometimes a book has too many threads going for its own good. Can’t comment on Physics in that regard. My issue is with the nature of the magical quality that the narrator has. I was not in the mood to accept the premise at the time. But I suspect I will go back to it at some point. It’s funny, I used to love magic realism but my patience for it is limited. All out weird on the other hand does not necessarily trouble me. 🙂

        (And no, I don’t know what “straight bat” means.)

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Joe – A bit of Magical Realism can go a long way 😉

          Re: ‘play with a straight bat’, it’s a cricket term, and we use it to mean something is done seriously and honestly (if you don’t do this in cricket, you’re probably doing something risky…).


  2. I keep meaning to read Gospodinov and your post gives me yet another reason. The notion of тъга is indeed something embedded deep in the culture. Earlier this year in advance of the March 20 International Day of Happiness, Eurostat published the findings of its “new multi-dimensional data collection answering the question “How satisfied are people with their lives in the European Union?” It found that “residents in Bulgaria were by far the least satisfied.” Many such surveys about happiness and satisfaction have been done having nothing to do with the EU question and Bulgaria is perhaps singular in its constant position at or near the bottom. Consequently, whether EU membership has anything to do with longstanding Bulgarian “pessimism” is doubtful. Instead I would venture to say that тъга is instead the culprit.


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