#RivetingReviews: Rosie Goldsmith reviews TIME SHELTER by Georgi Gospodinov

Georgi Gospodinov has written only three novels in his three decades of writing – Time Shelter is his third – but since the early 1990s, together with his poetry, plays, a graphic novel, short stories, essays and a libretto, he has become not only Bulgaria’s but one of Europe’s most significant and successful writers, widely translated and admired. His body of work is impressive. He’s funny, experimental, anarchic and profound. Political satire is inlaid with a profound philosophy of life and death. He’s a literary magician, a traveller, an astute observer of his home country and of contemporary Europe, of everyday life and global events. His first novel, Natural Novel (1999 in Bulgarian/2005 in English), his second, The Physics of Sorrow (2012/2015), and his third, Time Shelter (2020/2022), are all linked by themes, ideas and characters. They overlap, twist, turn and dip like nail-biting rollercoasters. He’s having fun but daring himself – and us – to fly higher.

Gospodinov’s writing is also about writing. He positions the writer visibly in his stories. The protagonists in Time Shelter are the unnamed first-person narrator, who is (we’re told) probably Gospodinov himself; and Gaustine, a psychiatrist and specialist in memory disorders, who is described as a ‘vagrant in time’, someone who jumps ‘from decade to decade just as we change planes at an airport’, and who is (we’re told) also probably the author: ‘Gaustine, whom I first invented, and then met in flesh and blood.’  

Gaustine and the narrator (both natives of the Balkans) meet in Switzerland to create a special clinic, a sanatorium of the past to help Alzheimer’s and dementia sufferers – ‘those who already are living solely in the present of their past’ – to recover and relive their memories in comfort. Each floor of the clinic is a replica of a complete decade of the twentieth century, from the wallpaper to the newspapers to the chocolate to the cigarettes. The narrator, GG, becomes Gaustine’s assistant, and is the one responsible for travelling Europe to source all the objects, smells and stories required to recreate the past: ‘It was the perfect job for me … I’ve roamed like a flaneur through the arcades of the past.’

Their goal is to create ‘protected time’. As Gaustine explains: 

‘The time is coming when more and more people will want to hide in the cave of the past, to turn back. And not for happy reasons, by the way. We need to be ready with the bomb shelter of the past. Call it the time shelter, if you will.’ 

The Zurich clinic is a great success. New floors are added, new decades replicated.  The time-obsessed narrator introduces us to several of the patients and references numerous other writers who also obsess about time, such as Thomas Mann, W.H. Auden, Virginia Woolf, W.G. Sebald, Jorge Luis Borges and Homer. They are his literary companions, accompanying us through the novel.

The individual patients’ stories are moving. One elderly female patient refuses to shower. She becomes hysterical. Gaustine then learns that she had survived Auschwitz and that the showers remind her of the gas chambers. He protects her by keeping her lost memory intact. Then there’s the Bulgarian patient, Mr N, who grew up under socialism. Ironically, the person who knows Mr N’s life story most intimately is the secret agent who spied on him during communism’s dark decades. In a chilling twist, the spy is brought to the clinic to help Mr N recover his past and his memory. In this way Bulgaria’s socialist past, officially erased, its secret files destroyed, are also recovered – for us, the readers, the world, lest we forget.  

The clinics of the past becomes so popular that Gaustine is encouraged to create more, in more cities all over Europe. The narrator, unsurprisingly, enjoys visiting the new Bulgarian branch, which provides ample opportunity for recreating lost decades of Bulgarian history and for his musings on ‘the eternal sorrow and misfortune of being Bulgarian.’

Clinic director Gaustine’s intentions had always been to help, to save his traumatised patients, but gradually the time shelter experiment becomes less controllable, more sinister. Not only sick but healthy people join in the memory game, and attend the clinics in order to escape the horrors and pressures of the present. Gaustine and his alter ego are compelled to actively engage with the medical and moral aspects of Alzheimer’s, assisted suicide and euthanasia, for, after all, their first time-shelter clinic began in Zurich, home of Dignitas. They must then also confront how they should approach the more difficult decades of the twentieth century, the two world wars, the 1930s. Would anyone realistically want to return there and recover those decades of war, devastation and ‘global dementia’?

As the network of clinics spreads across Europe and the novel becomes an even deeper and edgier satire on the dangers of nostalgia and nationalism, Gaustine, his assistant and the narrator receive an official visit from a group of EU politicians and bureaucrats – in suits, of course. They propose a collaboration on a series of referendums for the people of each EU country to decide which decade they would prefer to live in. As the narrator comments: ‘Everything was going wrong in the family of Europe … every member was unhappy in its own unique way.’ The ultimate goal of these referendums is a ‘Eurotopia’ of happy citizens looking back to the certainty of the past: ‘Since a Europe of the future is no longer possible, let’s choose a Europe of the past.’ The choice is, ‘living together in a shared past, which we have already done, or letting ourselves fall apart and slaughtering one another, which we have also already done.’ 

The fact that the inspiration for this referendum is taken from ‘Great Brexitania’ and that I am reading this novel when Europe is again at war, is, quite frankly, depressing. We are exceptionally lucky to have authors like Georgi Gospodinov to remind us of what matters, lest we forget, lest we repeat the past.

Reviewed by Rosie Goldsmith


Written by Georgi Gospodinov 

Translated from the Bulgarian by Angela Rodel

Published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson (2022)

January 2023 #RivetingReviews titles are available to buy from bookshop.org.

Rosie Goldsmith is director and founder of the European Literature Network and Editor-in-Chief of The Riveter. She was a BBC broadcaster for twenty years and is today an arts journalist and presenter. She was chair of the judges for the EBRD Literature Prize 2018-2020.

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