Six things you need to know about the International Booker Prize 2023 shortlist
As the International Booker Prize 2023 shortlist is announced, we’ve pulled together the most interesting facts and trends that have emerged in this year’s selection
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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.
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.
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.
‘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!’
‘[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.’
‘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
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?
New York Times: What if We Could Relive Our Golden Ages? https://www.nytimes.com/2022/05/10/books/review/georgi-gospodinov-time-shelter.html
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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