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‘Time Shelter’ Wins the International Booker Prize: Interview with Author Georgi Gospodinov

Credit: International Booker Prize 2023 Winners, Georgi Gospodinov and Angela Rodel

Culture Editor Nia Simeonova sits down with International Booker Prize winner Georgi Gospodinov to discuss his novel “Time Shelter” – a rare jewel of modern European literature.

The Bulgarian novel “Time Shelter” won the International Booker Prize on 23 May. On this occasion, Roar sat down with author Georgi Gospodinov to discuss the book’s success and its context in the world today. 

The International Booker Prize is awarded for the best book originally published in a foreign language and translated into English. “Time Shelter” is the first book originally written in Bulgarian to win the award. But the award’s timing this year made it all the more special. 

“The award came on the eve of the most beautiful Bulgarian holiday, 24 May, dedicated to the Cyrillic alphabet. I did not expect such a great outburst of joy in the country. The people I met, upon my return, were telling me how they had cried tears of joy. They said they had a great need for something to brighten the past few years. I, on the other hand, was happy that they were happy because of the success of a book.”

“Time Shelter”
The cover of the English translation of “Time Shelter”.

“Time Shelter” tells the story of the mysterious Gaustine who sets out to create a ‘clinic of the past’ to help people suffering from memory loss alongside the narrator who is, himself, somewhat obsessed with the past. As they recreate a different decade in minute detail on each floor, the obsession with the past seems to spread like wildfire. 

Even though this makes for an original sci-fi plot, deep-rooted philosophical threads intertwine with the story on every page of the book. Labelled a book “that can never be fully exhausted” by Nobel Prize winner Olga Tokarczuk, “Time Shelter” belongs to a separate shelf that one needs to revisit regularly. Gospodinov writes for philosophers and ordinary people alike, playing on a deeply human string like a true “botanist of the soul”

One of the main aims of a ‘time shelter’ is to provide the comfort of the past to people whose memory is slipping away and “Time Shelter” does just that in an almost scary way, dancing on the line between the ‘fictional’ and the ‘real’. “A woman once told me that when she started reading the novel aloud to her mother, an elderly woman with severe dementia, she noticed with surprise how her mother became absorbed and whispered softly, ‘I remember this story, it really happened to me’”.

But the novel is just as meaningful on a much broader societal scale. It captures the ceaseless search for identity that resonates throughout a whole continent and becomes more and more relevant every day. “From a dystopian novel, immersed in the near future, the novel increasingly starts to come true and becomes realistic. But in fact, it is the same, only the times have become dystopian”.

As Simon Ings puts it “accident, in combination with the book’s own merits, may just have created a classic”. However, it may just be a shift of perspectives. Countries like Bulgaria, which have not typically been the centre of attention in Europe, can reveal a lot about the daily collision of past and present. “In fact, the centre of Europe is currently located in its Eastern part due to the war in Ukraine. The centre is where it hurts. And the writers from our part of Europe know a lot about this pain and must tell it.”

“This award for the book proves that even small languages from the periphery of Europe can and should speak about the great things in the world”. Translator Angela Rodel has enabled millions of people around the world to experience “Time Shelter” through her brilliant translation from Bulgarian. Born in Minnesota, she first got interested in this ‘small language’ during her time at Yale. She remembers feeling weirdly drawn to its quirky letters and she even joined Yale’s Bulgarian choir. As of today, she has lived in Sofia for 20 years and has mastered the art of traditional folklore songs, leaving Bulgarians awestruck at her performances. 

The original cover of “Time Shelter” in Bulgarian.
Hope for the future and advice for young people

Having completely scrambled the notions of past and present and questioned the promises of the future, “Time Shelter” leaves us wondering whether any real hope is justified. Gospodinov offers some words of encouragement: “Hope for the future lies within us. But the concerns for the future are also within us. Saving the future is a daily effort. My hope is that we understand this sooner.”

Should we also have hope for the past? “The past must be told in order to be remembered and understood. Otherwise, it will be sold to us by merchants of the past and populists.”

Having sat down with a true philosopher and an International Booker Prize winner, Roar couldn’t miss the chance to ask Georgi Gospodinov for some advice: “Be extremely sensitive and do not be afraid to tell the world in a personal way. Write and think the world.”

You can order a copy of “Time Shelter” here.

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