News of Georgi Gospodinov and Angela Rodel’s timely win was celebrated not only by Bulgarians, but by book lovers around the world

Written by Donna Mackay-Smith

Publication date and time: Published

On Tuesday, May 23, the 2023 International Booker ceremony took place. The annual prize is awarded to the finest single work of fiction from around the world, which has been translated into English and published in the UK and Ireland. It honours both the winning author and translator, who equally share the prize fund of £50,000.

This year, the award ceremony found itself nestled within the oasis of London’s Sky Garden, on the 35th floor of 20 Fenchurch Street (also known as the Walkie Talkie), with the city’s iconic skyline providing the backdrop to the event. The winner, announced just shy of 10pm, was Time Shelter, written by Georgi Gospodinov and translated from Bulgarian by Angela Rodel

Originally published in Bulgaria in 2020 by Janet 45, the novel makes literary history twice over as the first book translated from the Bulgarian language to be both nominated and win the prize.

But this wasn’t Rodel and Gospodinov’s first rodeo. The pair have a long-standing and successful working relationship: Rodel translated Gospodinov’s second novel, The Physics of Sorrow, published in 2012, which went on to win three national awards for best fiction, including Bulgarian Novel of the Year. They have also worked together on myriad short stories, essays, plays - and even a space opera libretto. ‘Our close collaboration has always been delightful and intellectually inspiring’, Rodel told the Booker Prizes website, when interviewed in April of this year, upon making the shortlist.

The latest work to have emerged from their partnership – which Rodel, who is also a musician, likens to a ‘duet’ – is an intricately woven novel which tenderly addresses the power and loss of memory. At times dystopian, Time Shelter features a ‘clinic for the past’, a sanctuary for Alzheimer’s sufferers where each floor reproduces a past decade, allowing patients to go back in time and revisit their fading memories. But the past begins to invade the present when an increasing number of healthy people seek refuge there too, hoping to escape the horrors of modern life.

International Booker Prize 2023 winner ceremony at Sky Garden, London

Declaring its win, Leïla Slimani, chair of the International Booker Prize judges, said it was ‘a brilliant novel, full of irony and melancholy’, adding that ‘it offers us a perspective on the destiny of countries like Bulgaria, which have found themselves at the heart of the ideological conflict between the West and the communist world.’

As the winner was announced from the shortlist of six books, readers from across the world tuned in online, watching live. Those from Gospodinov’s home country were among the first to rejoice as Slimani revealed the winner. ‘Bulgaria is proud of you,’ commented Ljubomir Angelov, while another viewer, Беркан, excitedly declared: ‘Let the Bulgarian language be heard!’.

The two-hour time difference between the UK and Bulgaria meant the news broke as the clock struck midnight in Gospodinov’s homeland, where the country was about to mark its Cyrillic Alphabet Day - a unique celebration of literacy, education and culture. This serendipity was not lost on fans of the novel. 

‘This year’s celebration started with the great news #InternationalBookerPrize 2023 was awarded to [Bulgarian] writer #GeorgiGospodinov for “Time Shelter”’, wrote @LilyanaPavlova on Twitter, while on Instagram @thatssoss_poppygirl commented ‘at this moment and on this holiday, I am truly proud of the origin, heritage, literary and culture of Bulgaria!’.

IBP 2023 shortlisted authors and translators

Many Bulgarians likened the excitement to that of the World Cup. ‘Tonight, #Bulgarians watched the @TheBookerPrizes the way most people watch football – and I don’t know if there are many a people who could boast that about literature’, journalist @joannaelmy said on Twitter, adding that it was ‘only the beginning of a recognition by the literary and cultural Western establishment’. ‘Yes, “small” nations can matter tremendously,’ she concluded, emphatically. 

But it wasn’t just locals that were celebrating. ‘My favourite writer. Congrats from India,’ a viewer offered on the live stream. While in New York, actor and bibliophile Sarah Jessica Parker – who played Sex and the City’s Carrie Bradshaw – was following proceedings on Instagram. ‘Wow!!!!! We have been waiting! Congratulations!!! X’, the actor wrote. 

As dawn broke the following morning, headlines were appearing in global news outlets and media across the world. ‘Time Shelter’s win marks the second year in a row that the award has gone to a book in a language never previously honoured by the prize,’ noted The Guardian. The Telegraph India reported that ‘Prophetic Bulgarian novel wins International Booker Prize’ and The Federal, also in India, stated that ‘[Gospodinov’s] win marks a breakthrough for Bulgarian literature on the international stage as it not only validates the quality and significance of his writing, but also shines a spotlight on the cultural and artistic contributions of Bulgaria as a whole.’

Chair of judges Leïla Slimani with winners Georgi Gospodinov and Angela Rodel

‘It is a novel that invites reflection and vigilance as much as it moves us, because the language – sensitive and precise – manages to capture, in a Proustian vein, the extreme fragility of the past

Trade magazine The Bookseller commented it was ‘the second year in a row to have a new language which had never featured before in the prize’, referencing 2022’s winner, Tomb of Sand, which was originally written in Hindi, and remarked on the potential for it to fuel ‘a bigger appetite for translated fiction’. The Balkan Insight claimed it would give ‘a major boost to the global visibility of Bulgaria’s literary scene’.

By lunchtime, the announcement was making a significant impact on sales and the novel climbed Amazon’s Movers and Shakers chart – a real-time overview of books that have made the biggest gains in the past 24 hours. Here, Time Shelter jumped a phenomenal 20,000%, climbing to #5. It then moved into the overall chart at #13, sitting amongst industry heavyweights, including Colleen Hoover’s TikTok sensation Verity and Nita Prose’s The Maid, a Sunday Times bestseller. 

Despite the sudden interest, Time Shelter didn’t go unnoticed when first published. The novel topped the Bulgarian book charts and its Italian translation won the prestigious Strega European Prize (Premio Strega Europeo) in 2021. 2018’s International Booker Prize winner Olga Tokarczuk described it as ‘the most exquisite kind of literature, on our perception of time and its passing, written in a masterful and totally unpredictable style, while La Repubblica called Gospodinov ‘a Proust coming from the East’. Finally, Bulgarian literature was attracting the world’s attention. 

Responding to the International Booker win, Manol Peykov, CEO and Managing Partner at Janet 45, the book’s Bulgarian publisher, told BTA, a local news agency, that ‘in its entire history, since the time of Simeon the Great, Bulgarian literature has never received such international recognition’, adding that this spotlight would create further interest for literature from the region abroad.

Author Georgi Gospodinov with translator Angela Rodel after winning the International Booker Prize 2023

Yet none of this would have been possible without Angela Rodel, who is renowned for her nuanced translations of works depicting Balkan life and history. Originally from Minnesota, USA, the translator is now a permanent resident in Bulgaria and was awarded citizenship in 2014 for her contribution to Bulgarian culture.

Bulgarian newspaper 24chasa highlighted the significance of Rodel’s work: ‘The world has learned about Bulgaria and its writers precisely through the translations of Angela Rodel’, they wrote. 

Traduki, a European network that connects Southeast Europe with the German-speaking world through literature, also gave a nod to the work of Rodel and fellow translators on Twitter. ‘Many of us discovered the novel through other translations and we would like to say hurray to all translators’. ‘You make the wor(l)ds spin round!’ they said, adding they hoped more translations of Time Shelter would now follow.

Angela Rodel, translator of Time Shelter by Georgi Gospodinov, winner of the International Booker Prize 2023

Gospodinov’s work might not have been familiar to English-speaking audiences until this week, but he has long been revered at home and in Europe. His back catalogue of over a dozen books includes poetry, collections of short stories, essays and Bulgaria’s first graphic novel. Born in 1968 in Yambol, he is one of Bulgaria’s leading contemporary voices, with his work translated into 25 languages to date. He is a writer of modernity, his work prescient – at times unnervingly so. Time Shelter was inspired by contemporary nostalgia-driven politics and populism such as Trump’s ‘Make America Great Again’ campaign. 

‘Brexit was the other trigger,’ Gospodinov told The Booker Prizes website earlier this year. ‘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’.

While published before the war in Ukraine, the book foreshadows the beginning of a strikingly similar European conflict in its final scenes. Gospodinov has long been an outspoken critic of Putin – and now Russia’s invasion of its neighbour. In April of this year, he lambasted the regime in an article for The Guardian. Yet while many foreign authors and publishing houses have chosen to boycott Russia in protest, Gospodinov is doing the opposite. Speaking to RFE/RL’s Bulgarian Service, the author spoke recently of his plan to publish Time Shelter there, which he said was ‘frankly against this war, against nationalism and populism’, through a small publishing house in St. Petersburg. It is ‘aimed at Putin’, he told them.

The deep connection with his region’s complicated history - or as Leïla Slimani said, ‘the complex balance between the intimate and the universal’ - is a thread woven throughout all his works, which Gospodinov also referenced when speaking to the Arabic newspaper Al Majalla after his win. 

‘I believe that a person’s biography or life story holds greater significance to me than the grand narrative,’ he said, while alluding that readers could expect to see more tales from his home country imbued in his future work. 

‘I have consistently preferred intimate stories and have been deeply intrigued by the factors that contribute to an individual’s happiness or discomfort. Bulgaria harbours countless untold stories that I aspire to bring to light.’

Georgi Gospodinov after winning the International Booker Prize 2023 for his novel Time Shelter