What everybody is saying about Time Shelter winning the International Booker Prize
As Time Shelter wins the International Booker Prize 2023, here’s what fans and critics are saying about Georgi Gospodinov and Angela Rodel’s timely win
A ‘clinic for the past’ run by an enigmatic therapist offers a promising treatment for Alzheimer’s sufferers: each floor reproduces a decade in minute detail, transporting patients back in time to a familiar, safer, happier moment.
An unnamed narrator is tasked with collecting the flotsam and jetsam of the past, from 1960s furniture and 1940s shirt buttons to scents, and even afternoon light. But as the rooms within the clinic become more convincing, an increasing number of healthy people seek refuge there, hoping to escape the horrors of modern life - a development that results in an unexpected conundrum when the past begins to invade the present. Soon, entire countries want to emulate the idea, with referendums taking place to decide which particular version of the past will shape each nation’s future.
Intricately crafted, and eloquently translated by Angela Rodel, Time Shelter cements Georgi Gospodinov’s reputation as one of the indispensable writers of our times, and a major voice in international literature. It is the first book from Bulgaria to be nominated for the International Booker Prize.
About the AuthorWinner of the International Booker Prize 2023, Georgi Gospodinov was born in Yambol, Bulgaria, and his works have been translated to acclaim in 25 languages
Georgi Gospodinov is Bulgaria’s best-known contemporary writer, whose work includes poetry, plays, essays and graphic novels. He has been shortlisted for more than a dozen international fiction prizes - including the PEN Literary Award for Translation, the Premio Gregor von Rezzori, the Bruecke Berlin Preis, and the Haus der Kulturen der Welt Literaturpreis. He won the 2016 Jan Michalski Prize for Literature, the 2019 Angelus Literature Central Europe Prize and the 2021 Premio Strega Europe, among others.
Time Shelter is his third novel to be published in English. The Italian edition of the book won the prestigious Premio Strega Europeo prize last year. His graphic novel The Eternal Fly was the first Bulgarian graphic novel and his short story ‘Blind Vaysha’ was adapted into a short animated film that was nominated for an Oscar in 2017.
Angela Rodel, originally from Minnesota, USA, lives and works in Bulgaria. She holds degrees from Yale and UCLA, and has received NEA and PEN translation grants. Her translation of Georgi Gospodinov’s The Physics of Sorrow won the 2016 AATSEEL Prize for Literary Translation. In 2014, she was awarded Bulgarian citizenship for her translation work and contribution to Bulgarian culture.
Her poetry and prose translations have also appeared in numerous literary magazines and anthologies, including McSweeney’s, Little Star, Ploughshares, Granta.org, Two Lines, and Words Without Borders, among others. In 2014, she was awarded Bulgarian citizenship for her translation work and contribution to Bulgarian culture.
As well as working as a literary translator – and teaching literary translation in Bulgaria – she has also been a singer in a Bulgarian folk band, acted in a Bulgarian crime drama, and starred in a film, Kozelat, in which she rides a goat.
‘My urge to write this book came from the sense that something had gone awry in the clockworks of time. You could catch the scent of anxiety hanging in the air, you could touch it with your finger. After 2016 we seemed to be living in another world and another time. The world’s disintegration with the encroachment of populism and playing the card of the ‘great past’ in the US and in Europe provoked me. Brexit was the other trigger. I come from a system that sold a ‘bright future’ under communism. Now the stakes have shifted, and populists are selling a ‘bright past’. I know via my own skin that both cheques bounce, they are backed by nothing. And that’s why I wanted to tell this story about the ‘referendums on the past’, undertaken by every European country. How does one live with a deficit of meaning and future? What do we do when the pandemic of the past engulfs us? The last chapter of the novel describes how the past comes to life: the troops and tanks amassed to reenact the beginning of World War II unexpectedly invade the neighbouring country’s territory. The novel was published in Bulgarian in 2020.
‘The idea for my character Gaustine, who establishes ‘clinics of the past’ to create protected time for people losing their memory, came to me 15 years ago. In the last six or seven years, I’ve come to realise the past can be a ‘discrete monster’ and its collective return is not at all innocent. During this period, I started doing lots of research – I had a year-long fellowship at the New York Library’s Cullman Center. The writing process itself took me nearly three years. I always scribble the first draft or notes in a notebook, and only then type them up on the computer. As it happens, I always end up with seven drafts of my novels. The idea of going from the clinics of the past, which deal with patients’/residents’ private pasts, to European referendums on the past was the basic framework for the plot from the outset. But I’m the kind of writer who likes to follow language and the stories themselves. I think language is smarter than we are. I come from poetry, so every word is precious to me. I write my novels sentence by sentence. And if I can get to the point where I’m following the narrator’s voice, with its language and rhythm, and even sometimes surprising myself with the way the story is unfolding, that’s good for the book. I don’t like novels written like the Periodic Table, where the writer knows from the start what’s going to be in each box. I want the story to excite me, to be natural and human, not going from point A to point B, but instead getting lost and found. Besides, a novel about the loss of memory (both personal and collective) couldn’t be otherwise.’‘
Read the full interview here.
It compels us to question our concepts of identity: not just national, individual, societal, but also historical and temporal— The International Booker Prize 2023 panel of judges on 'Time Shelter'
‘An inventive, subversive and morbidly humorous novel about national identities and the seductive dangers of memory and nostalgia.
‘Part of a tradition of East Central Europe that includes Milan Kundera, Dubravka Ugrešić and Danilo Kiš, it’s a fresh staging of old questions: the danger of selective memory, the inheritance of trauma, and how nostalgia can take a grip on society and become a comfort blanket – or a cancer.
‘It compels us to question our concepts of identity: not just national, individual, societal, but also historical and temporal. How much do we reshape the past to suit our present and our future? In addition to the borders dividing countries, we see that time and memory are also different forms of borders. How do individuals, nations, even continents, decide on what to remember, and what to forget? The novel also makes us contemplate the very concept of Time itself in a different way. Nostalgia is more than what it used to be.’
Simon Ings, The Times (UK)
‘This is not a realist novel. It is very much a genre-busting novel of ideas. This is a book about memory, how it fades and how it is restored, even reinvented, in the imaginations of addled individuals and the civic discourse of nations.’
Cory Oldweiler, The Los Angeles Review of Books
‘The novel asks a lot of intriguing questions but doesn’t provide many answers, leaving readers to come to their own conclusions. For a novel so steeped in layers of nostalgia, this open-endedness works well because every reader brings different experiences of the past and so will have different opinions and reactions to interpretations of it. Gospodinov can also feel unfocused, however, as if he has too much on his mind or is too enamored of what he finds there to linger long enough to provide any answers. This tendency was most acute in the novel’s intentionally meandering metafictional conclusion, written as the mind of the author/narrator is fighting against forgetting. It is a conceit — the writer writing about writing the novel we are reading — that is so overdone at this point that authors who go there should say something new. Gospodinov doesn’t. Despite what didn’t work for me, the novel as a whole poses a fascinating hypothetical: What if we as a society become so afraid of what lies ahead that we condemn ourselves to reliving our familiar pasts, despite knowing the horrors they contain and the destinations where they lead? And what if we are already heading in that direction?’
Lucy Lockley, Booklist
‘A different kind of time-travel novel, one based on memories […] the elegant translation and the short, lyrical chapters in this dystopian tale offer a poignant ode to the dual tragedies of personal and universal memory loss.’
‘Though the story at times meanders, translator Rodel keeps the narrator’s wry voice consistent. And in its brisker latter chapters, the story achieves a pleasurably Borges-ian strangeness while sending a warning signal about how memory can be glitch-y and dangerous […] An ambitious, quirky, time-folding yarn.’
Sam Sacks, Wall Street Journal
‘Mr. Gospodinov, one of Bulgaria’s most popular contemporary writers, is a nostalgia artist. In the manner of Orhan Pamuk and Andreï Makine, his books are preoccupied with memory, its ambiguous pleasures and its wistful, melancholy attraction […] This difficult but rewarding novel concludes with an image of Europe brought to the brink of renewed conflict—an abstraction that recent events have imbued with the terrible force of reality.’
1939: The year which, according to the novel’s narrator, on September 1, saw ‘the end of human time’
1968: The year to which Georgi Gospodinov would return if he could - also the year of his birth
1996: The year Angela Rodel first came to Bulgaria to study language and folk music at Sofia University
1999: The year Gospodinov published his experimental debut, Natural Novel, which has now been translated into over 20 languages
2009: The year Angela Rodel starred in a Bulgarian film, Kozelat, in which she is seen riding a goat
2017: The year that Blind Vaysha, a short animated film based on Gospodinov’s short story, was nominated for an Oscar
2016: The year Georgi Gospodinov felt something had shifted in the fabric of time, triggering him to write Time Shelter
2029: The year in which the novel ends, with a deadly re-enactment of the outbreak of the Second World War