Time Shelter

Although Georgi Gospodinov’s first novel, Natural Novel, was translated into English as long ago as 2005, and his second, The Physics of Sorrow, in 2012, Time Shelter (translated by Angela Rodel) is the first to be published in the UK, making it eligible for the International Booker Prize and, in fact, the first Bulgarian novel to be long-listed. Time Shelter is a philosophical and political novel, but it is written with a light touch in a style which is frequently conversational. It begins with an idea, an idea that the author claims as his own “(I must admit that in my case the idea was for a novel but still)”even as he summarises an article describing its use in a geriatric clinic in Vienna where a doctor has “decked out his office in the style of the 60s” with the result that patients stay longer and are less likely to run away. This will not the only time fact and fiction blend together in an often-indistinguishable mixture, most strikingly in the form of Time Shelter’s other central character:

“Gaustine, whom I first invented, and then met in flesh and blood.”

Gaustine might be said to be a conduit for the author’s wilder ideas, bringing them from the world of theory into practice – at least, within the fictional reality of the novel. It is Gaustine who decides to take the idea of recreating the past to benefit patients with Alzheimer’s further, beginning with a house designed to replicate the 1960s, but with expansion in mind:

“There’ll be houses from various years everywhere, little neighbourhoods, one day we’ll even have small cities, maybe even a whole country.”

He locates his operation in Switzerland as “a country without time can most easily be inhabited by all possible eras,” adding a new dimension to the phrase ‘historically neutral’. The narrator becomes Gaustine’s assistant, a “collector of the past,” an occupation not dissimilar from that of novelist as he readily confesses, admitting he is writing a novel about “the discreet monster of the past”:

“My work for the clinic and the simultaneous writing of the that book were like interconnected vessels… the basic question for both was how the past is made.”

Gospodinov tells the story of the clinic through the stories of individuals. Many of these are from former Communist countries – where, one imagines, the distinction between past and present is made even more striking by their entry into the ‘Western’ world in the 1990s. In one example, a man who can no longer remember his past relies on the memories of the policeman whose job it was to report on his activities. Some memories persist even as those in the clinic live in a recreated past. One man, who spends his days reading the newspapers of the 1970s in the belief they represent the present, comes to the author one night:

“John Lennon will be killed, he said quickly. He was truly worried, in any case he could not explain whether he had dreamed it or not.”

This is only the beginning of Gospodinov’s examination of our relationship with the past, however. In the novel’s second part he goes beyond the individual to the national as Gaustine’s prediction that “some kind of global dementia is coming” proves accurate:

“And then the past set out to flood the world…

“It  spread from one person to another like an epidemic, like the Justinian plague or the Spanish flu.”

If this paints a dystopian picture, it is also a recognisable one, a longing to return to a past which is remembered with nostalgia. We see this in former Eastern-bloc countries where the privations of Communism are seen by some as preferable to chaos of capitalism, but, of course, we have also had our own lobby group for retreat into past in the UK, Brexit being the most obvious outcome. As Gospodinov says:

“A new life was beginning, life as re-enactment.”

Countries hold referenda to decide which decade they will return to. The concept may seem far fetched but the political machinery proposing one decade or another seems remarkably similar to campaigning as we experience it today. The versions of the past on offer are, of course, not a true reflection of lived experience – just as, in the first part, individuals with dementia live in a false past, so nations which fail to recognise their past create one instead:

“The more a society forgets, the more someone produces, sells, and fills the freed-up niches with ersatz memory.”

In Time Shelter, Gospodinov tackles one of the most crucial political questions of the present moment – our relationship with the past. His exploration is playful and entertaining but nevertheless serious and thoughtful. Like the best satire, it is both ridiculous and instantly recognisable. It seems very likely it will feature of the International Booker shortlist, and should not be ruled out from winning the Prize itself.


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8 Responses to “Time Shelter”

  1. Lisa Hill Says:

    I had this out from the library but didn’t have time to read it. I expect I’ll regret that…

  2. Tony Says:

    Crossing my fingers that the library gets this one for me in time – probably near the top of the list of the books I’m actually looking forward to 😉

  3. JacquiWine Says:

    I remember thinking that this sounded particularly interesting when the longlist was announced, and your thoughtful review confirms my initial impression. As you say at the end of your piece, the best satires resonate so strongly with us because they combine the absurd with the instantly recognisable/ relatable. It’s a tricky thing to pull off effectively, but Gospodinov seems to have nailed it here!

  4. International Booker Prize 2023 | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] Time Shelter by Georgi Gospodinov, translated by Angela Rodel […]

  5. International Booker Prize Shortlist Predictions 2023 | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] contenders for the prize (and therefore definitely on my shortlist) are Georgi Gospodinov’s Time Shelter (translated by Angela Rodel) and Guadalupe Nettel’s Still Born (translated by Rosalind Harvey). […]

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