On the individual level, nostalgia for a past that never was can be harmless. And it’s a choice, generally speaking. But when this takes the form of a national movement to dwell in bygone times, that is no longer the case. And when an entire union of nations goes that route, existential threats are likely just around the corner. All too often, a deadly repetition of existential threats takes imminent shape. In Georgi Gospodinov’s Booker Prize winner, Time Shelter, the individual, national, and international mesh, mingle, and explode, along with personal and mass memory loss.
Gospodinov’s excellent, thought-provoking novel is the proverbial genre buster. The base tale is the story of Gaustine and the unnamed narrator, who may or may not have invented said person/character/flaneur. It’s metafictional in that sense, with echoes of Flann O’Brien, but only in a minor key. Casually postmodern, as opposed to staking one’s reputation on that.
The main keys tell the story of Gaustine’s invention of clinical shelters for Alzeimer’s patients, with rooms or floors of the clinics dedicated to particular decades or specific years, down to the minutest details of daily life in those times. Those who are losing their memories inhabit these rooms or floors, immersed in and surrounded by the sights and sounds of their era of choice, usually the time they felt the happiest, or the safest, or the most loved. Soon enough, politicians hijack Gaustine’s ideas and “healthy” citizens flock to those eras, too, followed by entire nations, with referendums to choose where and when everyone goes. Along the way, the novel touches lightly on Sci-Fi and Dystopian elements, but Gospodinov has many other irons in the fire. One of those irons is both an elegy for and a warning against dwelling in past times. The elegy, in my reading, is for a time when boundaries between then and now seemed clearer, more organic, before nostalgia was so ruthlessly packaged, marketed, and weaponized on national and international scales.
As in, the narrator gets wistful too. He dwells. He misses. He goes back in time to his native Bulgaria, to his childhood, teen years, young adulthood, and moves throughout Europe and across the Pond as well. Born in 1968 (like the author), he muses often about key historical moments like 1939, 1968, 1989, thru Brexit, and seems older than he is, almost timeless. The book was finished in 2020, translated into English in 2022 (by Angela Rodel), so it doesn’t include the invasion of Ukraine, or the continuation of populist movements post-2020. But it’s prophetically suggestive of what the future brings, and the new past. It tells the story of our times, before our times, through the eyes of someone who (modestly, lightly, with a touch of melancholy, now and then) breaks on through.
I heard frequent echoes of Milan Kundera when the narrator spoke of earlier periods of European history, along with (a lighter, warmer) E.M. Cioran. Borges is directly cited, and his labyrinths within labyrinths are structural and philosophical touchstone as well. Mostly, however, Gospodinov is his own voice, and an important one, with feet planted impossibly in the past, present, and future. In a sense, he continues the work of Kundera and other writers who see books of laughter and forgetting as vital in the war to preserve democracy via culture. Indirectly, with great subtlety, Gospodinov seems to be saying that the gravest threat to democratic life is the forced loss of memory, and the distortion of what was.