The winner of the International Booker Prize 2023, Georgi Gospodinov’s inventive, subversive and morbidly humorous novel takes aim at the seductive dangers of memory and nostalgia, on a personal and global level 

Whether you’re new to the book or have read it and would like to explore it more deeply, here is our comprehensive guide, featuring insights from critics, our judges and the book’s author and translator, as well as discussion points and suggestions for further reading.

Publication date and time: Published


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.  

Georgi Gospodinov

The main characters


The enigmatic Gaustine is a therapist who specialises in memory disorders such as Alzheimer’s and dementia. Described as a ‘vagrant in time’, he creates a radical clinic of the past in Zurich, where those with such disorders can take refuge in the comfort of their memories, but soon realises that his idea has much broader potential. 


The first-person narrator leads Time Shelter. Initially unnamed, as the story evolves it becomes clearer that the narrator is likely a fictional version of the author, Georgi Gospodinov, himself. In time, the narrator becomes Gaustine’s assistant, travelling across countries to acquire 20th century artefacts for the clinic that help recreate the past.

Time Shelter

About the author and translator

Georgi Gospodinov was born in Yambol, Bulgaria, and his works have been translated to acclaim in 25 languages. Bulgaria’s best-known contemporary writer, whose work includes poetry and plays, Gospodinov 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.  

Angela Rodel is a musician and literary translator who lives and works in Bulgaria. Rodel holds degrees from Yale and UCLA, and has received NEA and PEN translation grants. Her translation of Georgi Gospodinov’s 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.

Angela Rodel

What the International Booker Prize judges said

‘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. 

‘The wit and inventiveness of the writing never overwhelms the compassion the author has not only for his characters, but also for us, the readers. 

‘When you mess around with time, time also messes with you. As it’s an intricately constructed novel, each element tightly connected to the next, and we don’t want to ruin it for anyone, all we’ll say is: Read the book!’ 

Read more of the judges’ comments here.

International Booker Prize judges 2023

What the critics said

The Guardian: 

‘[Gospodinov] can draw out fully dimensional characters from the broken details of their fractured memories. His transitions – between humour and sadness, absurd situationism and reverberating tragedy, pathos and ironic observation – are never obtrusive. Thanks to the skill and delicacy of Angela Rodel’s translation, these qualities are in abundant display for the anglophone reader.’

The New York Times:

‘The morality of artificially returning people to the past, and the broader question of whether this truly brings solace - whether indulgence in nostalgia is curative or pernicious - is the central question of Georgi Gospodinov’s newly translated novel. He is sympathetic to the poignancy of things from before … but rebuffs the scapegoats of globalism, immigration and modernization that supposedly killed them off; we are all complicit in the destruction of history, and going backward can only mean intolerance and the exaltation of traditionalist kitsch…’

The Los Angeles Review of Books:

‘What is true, however, is that we have grown so afraid of the future that we can’t even retreat into the past. Instead, we have chosen inertia on any number of issues. On Russian aggression. On climate change. Would it be better to fracture our futures and live disconnected in past decades of our choosing? Gospodinov points out that recapturing lost time, redeeming the unredeemable, comes at a cost, too. And our current world doesn’t want to pay for a single thing, and so we wait, unsheltered, hoping that all manner of things shall be well.’

The Times:

‘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. Gospodinov’s vision of tomorrow is the nightmare from which Europe knows it must awake. And accident, in combination with the book’s own merits, may just have created a classic.’

We have grown so afraid of the future that we can’t even retreat into the past. Instead, we have chosen inertia on any number of issues. On Russian aggression. On climate change

What the author and translator said

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

What the author said

‘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 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 Georgi Gospodinol’s full interview here.

What the translator said

‘Georgi and I have been working together for quite a few years – I translated his previous novel as well as many short stories, essays, plays, even a space opera libretto (!). Our close collaboration has always been delightful and intellectually inspiring; despite his rather intimidating erudition, Georgi is also unusually empathetic and generous with his time and knowledge. Georgi cut his writerly teeth as a poet, so he is very interested in the craft of translation and loves to get into the weeds of rhythm and sound.

‘Perhaps one humorous moment when working on this book was in the discussion of various eras – I was confused as to why he characterised the ‘80s as the decade of disco, since I, as a child born in the early ‘70s, have distinct memories of dancing in my parents’ basement to Saturday Night Fever in that decade. We realised that the mismatch was due to the fact that Western music trends broke through the Iron Curtain with a bit of a lag, so indeed the ‘80s really were the disco era in the Eastern Bloc. So we found a way to finesse this in the text by adding in a qualifier: You always say that the ’80s are the decade that produced mostly boredom and disco in the East.’ 

Read Angela Rodel’s full interview here.

Questions and discussion points

The book’s central character, Gaustine, who comes up with the idea of the clinics of the past, is a mysterious, enigmatic and charismatic figure, and the narrator often struggles to understand him. ‘I was never sure when he was joking or whether he joked around at all.’ (page 44). To begin with, he seems to be a visionary, providing a radical and successful form of therapy. Later in the book, the narrator calls him a ‘monster’. Did you find Gaustine a likeable character or a dangerous and malevolent figure, or both?

When interviewed for the Booker Prizes website, Georgi Gospodinov said his career had been inspired by ‘[my] grandmother’s stories that I listened to as a child. Stories that blended fiction and reality, with no clear end to one and beginning to another. Stories that had voices and whispers, and miracles at the end.’ Can you see these influences in Time Shelter

At several points in the book, the narrator, who is an author, mentions that he invented or dreamt up Gaustine. He calls Gaustine his ‘invisible friend, more real and visible than my very self’. Both narrator and Gaustine share the initials G.G. and are Bulgarian (like Georgi Gospodinov). To what extent are the two main characters and the book’s author all the same person? Did you find the book’s metafictive elements successful?

The novel can be read as an increasingly outlandish satire about modern society’s idealisation of the past and the dangers of such an outlook when on a mass scale. It’s a timely read, one which the Guardian said addresses the ‘weaponisation of nostalgia’. Would you agree that we live in an age where nostalgia has been weaponised?

The panel of International Booker Prize judges called the book ‘morbidly humorous’. How does the author’s use of humour and irony contribute to the book as a whole? 

At one point during the story, Gaustine retreats to the year 1939, which is referenced at the beginning of the book as ‘the end of human time’. The ending of the book also leans into this moment. Why does Gospodinov keep circling back to this date? 

La Repubblica described Gospodinov as a ‘Proust coming from the East’. Do you agree with this statement? What are the similarities between the two writers?

An extract from one of Gaustine’s academic papers reads: ‘The more a society forgets, the more someone produces, sells, and fills the freed-up niches with ersatz-memory. The light industry of memory. The past made from light materials, plastic memory as if spit out by a 3-D printer. Memory according to needs and demand.’ To what extent do you agree with Gaustine’s view?

Gaustine’s clinic offers the opportunity to not only experience one’s own past, but an alternative past that an individual might have wished for; a past denied to them. ‘The past is not just that which happened to you. Sometimes it is that which you just imagined.’ (page 47) To what extent does Gospodinov play with the idea that we can be nostalgic for something that we didn’t experience, or that never existed? 

The English title is a neologism, as is the novel’s original, Bulgarian title. What meaning did you grasp from this, if any? What do you think was the author and translater’s intention in choosing this title? 

Time Shelter

Resources and further reading

New York Times: What if We Could Relive Our Golden Ages?

Tin House: Between the Covers Podcast

The New Yorker: The Bulgarian sadness of Georgi Gospodinov

Music & Literature: A Conversation with Georgi Gospodinov

Il Manifesto: Georgi Gospodinov: Living through an invasion from the past

If you enjoyed this book, why not try…

The Ministry of Pain by Dubravka Ugresic

The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann

In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust

Four Quartets by T.S. Eliot

The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera

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