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
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Georgi Gospodinov and Angela Rodel have won the International Booker Prize 2023 for the novel Time Shelter
Time Shelter becomes the first novel originally published in Bulgarian to win the prize. In the book, a ‘clinic for the past’ offers a promising treatment for Alzheimer’s sufferers: each floor reproduces a decade in minute detail, transporting patients back in time. But soon the past begins to invade the present.
The panel of International Booker Prize 2023 judges is chaired by the prize-winning French-Moroccan novelist, Leïla Slimani, who announced the winning book at a ceremony at Sky Garden, London, on May 23. The panel also includes Uilleam Blacker, one of Britain’s leading literary translators from Ukrainian; Tan Twan Eng, the Booker-shortlisted Malaysian novelist; Parul Sehgal, staff writer and critic at the New Yorker; and Frederick Studemann, Literary Editor of the Financial Times.
The 2023 judges were looking for the best work of international fiction translated into English, selected from entries published in the UK or Ireland between May 1, 2022 and April 30, 2023.
Leïla Slimani, Chair of Judges for the International Booker Prize 2023, said:
‘A jury is a complex thing, the alchemy of which is very subtle. It has been an exceptional literary and human experience to be able to discuss books with such passionate readers. Thank you to Parul Seghal, Tan Twan Eng, Frederick Studemann and Uilleam Blacker; I feel privileged to have been able to feed myself with their culture and their sensitivity.
‘Our winner, Time Shelter, is a brilliant novel, full of irony and melancholy. It is a profound work that deals with a very contemporary question: What happens to us when our memories disappear? Georgi Gospodinov succeeds marvellously in dealing with both individual and collective destinies and it is this complex balance between the intimate and the universal that convinced and touched us.
‘In scenes that are burlesque as well as heartbreaking, he questions the way in which our memory is the cement of our identity and our intimate narrative. But it is also a great novel about Europe, a continent in need of a future, where the past is reinvented, and nostalgia is a poison. 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.
‘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. And it mixes, in its very form, a great modernity with references to the major texts of European literature, notably through the character of Gaustine, an emanation from a world on the verge of extinction.
‘The translator, Angela Rodel, has succeeded brilliantly in rendering this style and language, rich in references and deeply free.
‘The past is only ever a story that is told. And not all storytellers have the talent of Georgi Gospodinov and Angela Rodel.’
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
2016, the year Georgi Gospodinov felt something had shifted in the fabric of time, triggering him to write Time Shelter
2017, the year that Blind Vaysha, a short animated film based on Gospodinov’s short story, was nominated for an Oscar
2029, the year in which the novel ends, with a reenactment of the outbreak of the Second World War
The author said: ‘Whale is my first novel. As I wrote it quite a long time ago, I was stunned that it was longlisted for the International Booker Prize this year, and that makes it all the more exciting. The publication of Whale changed my life, and it feels like it is still a propulsive force in my life.’
The judges said: ‘This book will fill you with awe. You’ve never read a plot like it: just read it, and be swept away by the sheer joy and energy of the storytelling. It reminded some of us of a Seventies comedy show: Cheon Myeong-Kwan has built a believable story out of preposterous situations. The characters aren’t nice – but they’re irresistible. And the ending is so moving it will have you in bits.’
The author said: ‘Because of my loss of vision, I had to dictate the text to a friend as well as my husband. This obliged me to write each chapter in my head. I was sensitive to sound and meaning because the writer is also a musician. The process was delicate and complex. I endeavoured to give to the person I was dictating to the version I had written out in my head.’
The judges said: ‘A joyful and optimistic book by a great storyteller, about the possibility of changing the world. Maryse Condé plays with our need to believe in a messiah, and retells one of the oldest stories with a lot of irony. It’s a deceptively simple novel full of wisdom, generosity of spirit and the writer’s palpable tenderness towards the world and her craft.’
The author said: ‘In order to write this book, I began by taking notes while I was on duty [as a security guard]. It’s a job where there’s nothing to do but watch. I immediately understood that this was ideal for observing without being seen. I was at the very heart of the absurdity of the consumerist society.’
The judges said: ‘This book is about the anti-flâneurs: not the rich white men who roam the boulevards of Paris but poorly paid Black men committed to standing still. As a security guard, the protagonist of Standing Heavy is invisible but sees everything. Told in a fragmentary style – as if from different camera angles – this is the story of colonialism and consumerism, of the specifics of power, and of the hope of the Sixties diminishing as society turns cynical and corrupt.’
Time Shelter by Georgi Gospodinov, translated from Bulgarian by Angela Rodel The author 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.’
The judges said: ‘The conceit – a time clinic – will make you want to burst out laughing, and it’s full of lines you’ll want to copy out. It’s an inventive novel with an unexpectedly cheeky tone to it. But it’s also a subversive masterclass in the absurdities of national identity: so relevant now. Part of a tradition of East Central Europe that includes Milan Kundera, Dubravka Ugresic and Danilo Kis, 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 and comfort blanket – or a cancer.’
The author said: ‘In the beginning, my intention was to write the story of my friend and her little daughter, which I’ve found incredibly inspiring, both terrible and beautiful at the same time. I wanted to show that it is possible to transform this painful experience into a meaningful one.’
The judges said: ‘The plot grabs you so organically it’s as though you’ve been abducted by reading – you feel like you live with these characters. At the end of the book you’ll want to call a friend and ask them to read it too, because none of it is black and white. In writing about how difficult it is to be a mother, Nettel balances empathy and cruelty, and deals brilliantly with all the moral complexity of maternity. The product of a deep wisdom, it’s honest, unsentimental and compassionate about the choices we think we’re making, and the choices that are foisted upon us.’
Leïla Slimani (Chair) is the bestselling author of Lullaby (published in the US as The Perfect Nanny), one of the New York Times Book Review’s 10 Best Books of 2018, for which she became the first Moroccan woman to win France’s most prestigious literary prize, the Prix Goncourt. Her first novel, Adèle, about a sex-addicted woman in Paris, won the Mamounia Prize for the best book by a Moroccan author written in French and inspired her non-fiction book Sex and Lies: True Stories of Women’s Intimate Lives in the Arab World. A journalist and frequent commentator on women’s and human rights, Slimani spearheaded a campaign – for which she won the Simone de Beauvoir Prize for Women’s Freedom – to help Moroccan women speak out against their country’s ‘unfair and obsolete laws.’ She is President Emmanuel Macron’s personal representative for the promotion of the French language and culture. Born in Rabat, Morocco, in 1981, she now lives in Lisbon with her French husband and their two young children. Her most recent novel is In The Country Of Others, the first instalment of a planned trilogy fictionalising the author’s family history.
Uilleam Blacker is Associate Professor of Ukrainian and East European Culture at University College London. He is the author of Memory, the City and the Legacy of World War II in East Central Europe (Routledge). He has translated the work of many Ukrainian authors, including Oleg Sentsov’s short story collection Life Went On Anyway (Deep Vellum). His translations of novels by Taras Prokhasko and Maik Yohansen will be published in the Harvard Library of Ukrainian Literature series. His translations have appeared in many anthologies and journals, including The White Review, Modern Poetry in Translation, and Words Without Borders. He has written for The Atlantic, The Times Literary Supplement and The Literary Review, among others. In 2022, he was Paul Celan Translation Fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna.
Tan Twan Eng was born in Penang, Malaysia, and grew up in Kuala Lumpur. He is of Straits Chinese descent and speaks English, Penang Hokkien, and Malay, as well as some Cantonese. He studied law at University of London and was an intellectual property lawyer in Kuala Lumpur before becoming a full-time author. His debut novel, The Gift of Rain, was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2007.
The Garden of Evening Mists, his second novel, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2012, more about which can be read here. It also won the Man Asian Literary Prize in 2012 and the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction in 2013, as well as being shortlisted for the Dublin IMPAC Prize in 2014. It has been adapted into an award-winning film. His novels have been translated into more than 15 languages. His third novel, The House of Doors, will be published in spring 2023. He has a first-dan ranking in aikido and divides his time between Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and Cape Town, South Africa.
Parul Sehgal was raised in India, Hungary, the Philippines and the United States. She is a staff writer at The New Yorker. Previously, she was a book critic at the New York Times, where she also worked as a senior editor and columnist. She has won awards from the New York Press Club and the National Book Critics Circle for her criticism. She teaches in the graduate creative writing programme at New York University.
Frederick Studemann is Literary Editor of the Financial Times. He joined the FT in 1996 as Berlin correspondent since when he has held a number of roles across the paper, including Assistant News Editor, UK Correspondent, European News Editor, Comment & Analysis Editor and Assistant Editor. He was a founding member of FT Deutschland where he ran the features and weekend section. The son of restless, itinerant parents, he spent his early years in Cork and Dublin, before moving to London, with later postings in Berlin, the Soviet Union, Greece and Austria.
The Booker Prizes exist to reward the finest in fiction. The symmetrical relationship between the Booker Prize and the International Booker Prize ensures that the Booker honours fiction on a global basis: world-class fiction is highlighted by the prizes for English-speaking readers, whether that work was originally written in English (the Booker Prize) or translated into English (the International Booker Prize).
The International Booker Prize began life in 2005 as the Man Booker International Prize. It was initially a biennial prize for a body of work, and there was no stipulation that the work should be written in a language other than English. Early winners of the Man Booker International Prize therefore include Alice Munro, Lydia Davis and Philip Roth, as well as Ismail Kadare and Laszlo Krasznahorkai.
In 2015, after the rules of the original Booker Prize expanded to allow writers of any nationality to enter - as long as their books were written in English and published in the UK - the International Prize evolved to become the mirror image of the English-language prize. Since then it has been awarded annually for a single book, written in another language and translated into English.
The Man Group continued to sponsor both prizes until 2019, when Crankstart became the funder, and the prize names reverted to the familiar ‘Booker’ name alone.
This prize aims to encourage more reading of quality fiction from all over the world, and has already had an impact on those statistics in the UK. Novels and collections of short stories are both eligible.