International Booker Prize winner Bulgarian writer Georgi Gospodinov’s kaleidoscope of history

Georgi Gospodinov is the first Bulgarian winner of the International Booker Prize; his win affirms the importance of literature from smaller languages and cultures

Georgi Gospodinov-Angela Rodel
Bulgarian author Georgi Gospodinov (left) and US literary translator Angela Rodel pose with the book Time Shelter at the International Booker Prize award ceremony in London on Tuesday night. Photo: Twitter

Georgi Gospodinov, the first Bulgarian winner of the International Booker Prize for his third novel Time Shelter — translated into English by Angela Rodel — has deep-seated empathy for the past. “For a person who loves the world of yesterday, this book was not easy,” he writes in the Acknowledgement section of the novel. “To a certain extent it was a farewell to a dream of the past, or rather to that which some are trying to turn the past into. To a certain extent it was also a farewell to the future.”

For Gospodinov, 55, Time Shelter serves as a farewell to the distortion and manipulation of the past that some individuals attempt to propagate — a political phenomenon which strikes a familiar chord for many of us in India. It also symbolizes a parting from the future, suggesting a relinquishment of certain expectations or assumptions about what lies ahead.

Time Shelter, thus, becomes Gospodinov’s conduit for navigating the shifting landscapes of memory, history, and hope. His win marks a breakthrough for Bulgarian literature on the international stage as it not only validates the quality and significance of his writing, but also shines a spotlight on the cultural and artistic contributions of Bulgaria as a whole. As a novelist, poet and playwright, he has already garnered international recognition; the International Booker Prize further solidifies his reputation as one of Bulgaria’s most translated writers since the fall of Communism in 1989.

It also affirms the importance of literature from smaller languages and cultures. “It is commonly assumed that ‘big themes’ are reserved for ‘big literatures,’ or literatures written in big languages, while small languages, somehow by default, are left with the local and the exotic. Awards like the International Booker Prize are changing that status quo, and this is very important,” he said in a statement after the £50,000 prize — to be divided equally between the author and the translator — was announced in London on Tuesday night.

The happened and the unhappened: Sanatorium of the past

Born in Yambol, a small city in Bulgaria’s southeast, and raised in Topolovgrad, an even smaller town near the Turkish border, Gospodinov excels in the fusion of nostalgic settings and literary ingenuity and playfulness. In his universe, stories unfold in a state of primordial chaos, where the happened and the unhappened (‘Happened stories are all alike, every unhappened story is unhappened in its own way’) coexist and intermingle.

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He challenges the idea that there is an omniscient presence guiding the threads of the action, asserting instead that stories have a life of their own. They float around us, filled with voices that shout, whisper, beg, and snigger. Stories meet and pass one another in the darkness, creating a tapestry of human experiences that transcends traditional notions of order and form. In Time Shelter, he shows us just how they do this.

The novel delves into Gospodinov’s favourite terrain: the past, which is seemingly relegated to history, and yet strikingly relevant in the present. It revolves around a mysterious therapist named Gaustine — who establishes a clinic in Zurich, which specializes in treating Alzheimer’s patients by recreating their most secure past experiences: ‘For us the past in the past, and even when we step into it, we know that the exit to the present is open, we can come back with ease. For those who have lost their memories, this door is slammed shut once and for all. For them, the present is a foreign country, while the past is their homeland. The only thing we can do is create a space that is in sync with their internal time.’

Time Shelter

Subsequently, the branches open elsewhere in Europe, too, including one in the Bulgarian capital Sofia. Each room and floor of the ‘past-clinic’ is meticulously designed with an obsessive attention to detail, incorporating specific cigarette brands, lampshades, wallpapers, and archive magazines, capturing the essence of different eras. Therapeutic time-shelters enable patients to inhabit their temporal “safe spaces,” constructing a semblance of the past they long for.

Real and imagined memory, and forgetting

Beyond merely treating patients, Gaustine’s clinic serves as a literary device for Gospodinov’s narrator/alter ego Ishmael — a collector/trapper of the past, with ‘a nose for other times’ who creates catalogues of memories, and scents — to explore the traumas and brokenness of individuals within the context of twentieth-century Europe: ‘Pasts are volatile, they evaporate with ease like an open bottle of perfume, but if you have the nose for it, you can always catch a whiff of their fragrance.’

Gospodinov highlights the therapeutic significance of selective forgetting, noting that memory is not inherently valuable and that the right kind of forgetting is sometimes necessary. For instance, Gaustine treats a Holocaust survivor who is unable to bear being near showers, unearthing a harrowing memory best left untouched, forgotten. A Romanian patient finds solace in reminiscing not about his actual experiences, but about his fantasies of living in the United States. Nostalgia, in this context, becomes a memory of what one desired, rather than a reflection of what was obtained: ‘The past is not just that which happened to you. Sometimes it is that which you just imagined.’

The success of Gaustine’s clinic leads to the influx of clients without any ailments, as everyone yearns for a pie of the past. A radio station broadcasts entire days from specific decades, and Gaustine’s imagination extends to envisioning towns and cities frozen in particular eras. Eventually, entire countries seek to emulate and embrace his idea, and political parties across Europe promote different decades in their national histories.

As the narrative unfolds, the novel touches upon larger themes of aging, dementia, and the global dementia that seems to loom on the horizon. The clinics thrive in a world where people are living longer, and the issue of euthanasia arises. Gospodinov draws attention to the ethical considerations surrounding end-of-life choices and the role of Switzerland as a prominent destination for assisted dying.

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Referendums are fought on the premise of determining which past will shape a country’s future. Gospodinov skilfully illuminates the humorous and absurd aspects of this concept, but also instils a sense of trepidation as readers recognize the all-too-familiar echoes of these tendencies in the contemporary world. The events surrounding the Brexit referendum and the Russian invasion of Ukraine serve as ‘prototypes’, illustrating the weaponization of nostalgia and the deliberate selection of particular eras in the ‘time clinic’ of the not-so-new world order. Gospodinov exposes the irony that even with a knowledge of history, nations are prone to repeat past mistakes.

Convergence of the past and the future

In his works, Gospodinov explores the convergence of the past and the future, creating narratives that blur the boundaries of time. In many of his stories, he presents characters and situations that embody this meeting point between different periods of history. In his story ‘Blind Vaysha’ — part of And Other Stories, translated by Alexis Levitin and Magdalena Levy (2007), a collection of almost two dozen short stories, he blends the fantastical with the realistic, capturing our attention with the quirky and inventive premise of the title character possessing the extraordinary ability to see only the past with her left eye and the future with her right eye. This serves as a metaphorical representation of how Gospodinov’s characters grapple with the conflicting forces of history and future. By exploring this duality, he prompts us to contemplate the complex relationship between our past experiences and future expectations.

His ability to merge the past and the future is not solely confined to temporal dimensions but also manifests in his stylistic approach; he manipulates time within the confines of his stories. Storytelling and its ability to transcend boundaries is always at the back of his mind. In his slim non-fiction account, The Story Smuggler (Sylph Editions, 2016), he writes about his childhood experiences in Communist Bulgaria (1946-1989), with a distinct melancholic tone. He delves into the fantasies that his upbringing fostered — the yearning for alternative lives and faraway places. By reflecting on his personal history, he highlights the power of stories to traverse physical and ideological borders, even in the most repressive environments.

Natural Novel and The Physics of Sorrow

Gospodinov’s burst on the literary scene in the early 1990s as a poet, winning national literary prizes in Bulgaria. He gained international prominence with his acclaimed debut novel Natural Novel (1999), published in multiple languages, including English. Described as an anarchic and experimental debut, the novel is a wry, experimental exploration of a newly divorced man’s fragmented musings — ‘storylines, reflections, and digressions’ — and sorrowful reflections in post-communist Bulgaria.

At the heart of the novel is the hapless first-person protagonist, who simultaneously assumes the roles of frustrated author and editor. His ambitious endeavour is to craft a narrative that continually begins, promising something new, only to start again. The result is a collection of diary-like entries, where dreams, memories, excerpts from classical literature, and seemingly ‘pointless’ dialogues intertwine. The plot revolves around the narrator’s divorce, which is precipitated by his estranged wife becoming pregnant with another man’s child. As he moves out of their apartment, weighed down by memories, the man becomes consumed by thoughts of his ex-wife, descending into an unhinged state.

In this state of emotional disarray, he finds himself fixated on the banalities of everyday life, finding morbid fascination in the mundane, such as the functioning of the toilet. His attempt to write a ‘natural history of the toilet,’ driven by a desire to break the silence surrounding this taboo subject, becomes a metaphor for the limitations of language itself. Through these fragmented musings, Gospodinov highlights the narrator’s isolation and the constriction of his own expression.

In his critically acclaimed second novel, The Physics of Sorrow, Gospodinov blends autobiography with fiction, personal narratives with broader societal reflections, as he navigates his childhood, military service, and adulthood as a melancholic writer, with a looming sense of apocalypse. His quest to understand and accept his own melancholy gains urgency as he grapples with the prospect of passing on his sorrow to his young daughter.

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Gospodinov’s exploration of the depletion of meaning and the economic, intellectual, and aesthetic crises in Bulgaria resonates with recent events and protests. He warns against nostalgia, or its weaponisation, and nationalism as escapes from present sorrows, advocating instead for embracing and empathizing with sadness as a counterforce to aggressive politics and market-driven pressures.

‘No memory, no crime’

Time Shelter seamlessly transitions between humour and sadness, absurdity and tragedy, pathos and ironic observation, but the narrative shifts are never jarring or obtrusive. The neologism inherent in the title encapsulates the novel’s essence: It evokes the image of seeking shelter from time itself while simultaneously finding refuge within time. Both concepts are alluring yet impossible to attain fully, Gospodinov seems to suggest.

Nostalgia, once perceived as a harmless escape and occasional source of comfort, becomes akin to a fossil fuel that shortens our future as it burns. It will compel the readers to confront their own relationship with memory and the ever-shifting tides of history, realizing how the ghosts of the past still have a firm grip on our collective consciousness. Gospodinov guides us into an uncertain future, where the past exerts a potent influence.

In this poignant culmination, we witness the fading presence of God. No longer divine and omniscient, God succumbs to the ravages of dementia, forgotten and disoriented: ‘If no one remembers becomes the equivalent of If there is no God. If there is no God, Dostoevsky said, then everything is permitted. God will turn out to be nothing but a huge memory. A memory of sins. A cloud with infinite megabytes of memory. A forgetful God, a God with Alzheimer’s, would free us from all obligations. No memory, no crime.’