Music – and its power to awaken memories – is an important theme in Time Shelter, winner of the International Booker Prize 2023. So we asked the book’s author to compile a playlist of a dozen songs that play a crucial role in the novel

Music is especially important to this novel and can be ‘heard’ in many places throughout it. First, because music awakens memory. Researchers claim that musical structures leave our memories last. Until the very end, a piano plays in our heads. The refrain of the Beatles’ Strawberry Fields Forever can be a sunbeam that lights up a dusky room from childhood. In the clinics of the past, Gaustine and the narrator constantly use music’s superpower; various emblematic songs take us back to particular years. Here we offer a selected playlist of the past: a Song Shelter, if you will. 

This article is translated by Angela Rodel.

Written by Georgi Gospodinov

Publication date and time: Published

‘Yesterday’, The Beatles

It’s unthinkable for a book about the past, about yesterday, not to include this Beatles song. The refrain first shows up in the epigraphs: ‘Oh yesterday came suddenly…’ The Beatles’ songs are like Proust’s madeleines, which always unlock the past. They’ve actually become a natural part of memory, we likely carry them in our neurons. Besides, ‘Yesterday’ was the first Beatles song I ever heard. Which is why it will be the last to leave me.  

‘Strawberry Fields Forever’, The Beatles

The novel’s dedication reads: ‘To my mother and father, who are still weeding the eternal strawberry fields of childhood.’ 

Watch it here.

Handel’s ‘Sarabande’  

I love Handel’s ‘Sarabande’ because it is gorgeous. And because the secret structure of the novel lies hidden in it. I put this in the beginning of the book, so the reader should listen to it to get a sense of the labyrinth they’re entering.  

And so, the theme is memory. The tempo: andante to andante moderato, sostenuto (with restraint). Perhaps the saraband, with its controlled solemnity, with the lengthened second beat, would be good for a beginning. More Handel than Bach. Strict repetition, yet at the same time moving forward. Restrained and solemn, as befits a beginning. Afterward everything can – and should – fall apart.  

‘Moon of Alabama’, Lotte Lenya

First, the Kurt Weill original ‘Alabama Song’, with lyrics by Bertolt Brecht. Few people know they wrote it and that it was first performed by the once-famous Lotte Lenya, Weill’s wife. The performance is mind-blowing and will send you directly to the 1920s and ’30s. Give it a listen.

‘Alabama Song’, The Doors 

In the 1960s, the song reappeared as a cover by the Doors. Brecht’s lyrics in both versions are dissected in the pages of the novel, especially the line: ‘I tell you, I tell you we must die…’ In 1965 (the year the Doors recorded their cover), Jim Morrison was already headed towards death. Yet this line reminds us (the book is about memory, after all) of another famous line, by W.H. Auden: ‘We must love one another or die…’ At least there’s some hope in that. But let’s hear the Doors’ variant.  

‘Hotel California’, Eagles 

In the book, this song plays on a warm June evening in 1978; however, that 1978 is merely reenacted, recalled, simulated. The narrator and his father go to watch the football World Cup championships at a bar. (All this takes place 50 years after the fact, the game is only a recording, but for the father, who suffers from Alzheimer’s, the year really is 1978, the game is being played as if for the first time, while nearby the hit song of the year is playing.) Pay close attention to this line: ‘some dance to remember, some dance to forget’.

Watch it here.

‘Izlel e Delyo Haydutin’, Valya Balkanska

This Bulgarian folksong provides the score for the scene in the novel featuring the biggest Bulgarian flag in the world (nearly 5,000 square meters), carried by 300 drones above Boris’s Garden in Sofia. Actually, I didn’t select this song randomly – it was chosen (as sung by Valya Balkanska) to fly into the open cosmos on a gold disk aboard the Voyager shuttle in 1977. A very moving performance! 

Watch it here.

‘My Way’, Frank Sinatra 

‘A haircut in Brooklyn from Jani, a Tajik who hums Frank Sinatra, and when he flicks open his straight razor to shave my neck, I’m seized by that primordial fear of being slaughtered like a lamb.’ (The opening of Chapter 34, in Part Five.)

This hit was written in December 1968 and came out the following year, but when you listen to Sinatra, it’s always the 1950s, it’s always dark, noir. And you feel a nagging fear, like the one in the quote from the novel above. 

‘Azzuro’, Adriano Celentano 

Of course, Celentano shows up in the novel in the passage about the referendum on the past in Italy. Italy is the only European country that decides to go back to the late 1960s, to 1968 in particular. Celentano wrote ‘Azzuro’ precisely in 1968. The song tells of a summer afternoon, and afternoons are always special times. I have always wanted to slip into an afternoon from the 1960s for a short while.

‘I Have a Dream’, ABBA 

In the referendums on the past that take place in Time Shelter, Sweden and Scandinavia choose the 1970s, in no small part thanks to ABBA. Sometimes pop music is more important for such choices than, say, heavy industry or political upheavals.  

‘ABBA was everything northern, light, Swedish, dancing, glittering, white — in the ’70s. ABBA or the Poäng chair, for example, an IKEA creation from that same decade, such things turn eras upside down, not the gross domestic product and the export of wood and steel.’  

The current revival of the ABBA legend, and to some extent the singers themselves, is a tiny part of the ever-more-visible eternal returning to the past. 

Watch it here.

‘Forever Young’, Alphaville 

Because this song is part of the reason Germany chooses the 1980s in its referendum on the past, at least in the novel. And because we were forever young then. Watch it here.

‘Pirin Song’, Angela and Gologan  

When you have a translator who is also a professional singer, your novel can easily be sung.