Review: Memory and Democracy in 'Time Shelter' by Georgi Gospodinov
Joseph Ronan studies the Environment, State and Economy pathway of the MA History course at University College London.
My first encounter with the work of the Bulgarian writer Georgi Gospodinov reduced me to tears. I was sitting in the office on my lunch break when I began reading his novel The Physics of Sorrow. Just thirty-four pages later, I was crying – sat in a desk chair, new in the role, trying to eat my pasta salad. I recall thinking that this qualified as something of a literary achievement.
The novel is beautiful, playful, and full of stories about the past. The scene that had so moved me detailed the visit of a young Bulgarian journalist Georgi Gospodinov to Hungary, ostensibly to write an article about Hungarian soldiers in the Second World War, but also to meet the woman with whom his grandfather – himself a Hungarian soldier, also named Georgi Gospodinov – had fallen in love five decades prior. The younger Georgi takes a trip into his grandfather’s past. For his grandfather’s lover, it is as if a long-lost figure from her own past has arrived at her door.
Gospodinov’s most recent novel, Time Shelter takes this preoccupation with the past and extends it from the territory of personal memory to that of the public and political. First published in translation last year, Time Shelter has been lauded by Nobel Prize winner Olga Tokarczuk, amongst others, and won both the prestigious Premio Strega Europeo and the 2023 International Booker Prize.
The novel begins with the narrator and his friend Gaustine developing a ‘Clinic of the Past.’ In this clinic, patients suffering from Alzheimer’s return to the world of their youth. Each floor of the fictional clinic is designed to return patients to a specific decade: those longing for the world of the 50s, for instance, spend their days surrounded by Elvis Presly, Miles Davis, and Frank Sinatra. They smoke the brand of cigarettes they smoked in their youth. They listen to the same radio shows and read the same newspapers. The job of the clinic is to totally reconstruct the patient’s past world; to use the past as a salve to ease their present mental discomforts.
One day, EU officials appear at the clinic, and at this stage the novel switches gear. The officials are worried about a wave of nostalgia that is sweeping through European politics: ‘the past was rising up everywhere, filling with blood and coming to life,’ Gospodinov writes. The ‘president of a Central European country’ arrives at work in the traditional national costume, and gradually all politicians begin mimicking this ploy: ‘A new life was beginning,’ says the narrator, ‘life as re-enactment.’ In a world of Brexit, and the nostalgic right-wing nationalism espoused by figures like Erdoğan and Orbán, it is not hard to imagine from where Gospodinov’s novel drew its inspiration.
Across Europe, both inside and outside of Gospodinov’s novel, the past is being mobilised to define and shape the present. Speaking on the 163rd anniversary of the 1848 Hungarian Revolution against the Habsburg monarchy in 2011, Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orbán said: ‘We did not submit to the dictates of Vienna in 1848. We rose up against Moscow in 1956 and in 1990, and today we will not let anyone dictate to us from Brussels or from anywhere else.’ The pattern is clear: as in the case of Brexit, or the election of Giorgia Meloni in Italy, past glories are evoked to legitimise present action.
In the novel, memory produces an active past untethered from time itself, and from historical reality.
In Time Shelter, the EU officials that arrive at the clinic fear this power of the past. The resurgence of memory in politics has begun to mobilise an emotional intensity that threatens to destabilise everything. They need a solution, and so they turn to Gaustine, the man who invented the memory clinic, who takes them into his 1960s-themed study. The plan they produce is radical, it is ‘a referendum on the past.’ Each member state is to decide democratically which decade their nation shall return to: ‘All elections up until this point had been about the future. This would be different.’
A political battle over the past begins to erupt across the continent. Who would return to when? In France, the left-leaning radicals argue for 1968, while Le Pen and her supporters demand a return to the traditionalism and order of De Gaulle in the 1950s. In the Czech Republic, the Golden 1920s competes with the fall of communism in 1989. Eventually, the Czech vote returns their nation to the 1990s, as do most countries of the former Eastern Bloc. Germany, in contrast, returns to the 1980s, and Berlin is once again a divided city.
Gospodinov is playing with time. In the novel, memory produces an active past untethered from time itself, and from historical reality. ‘We are constantly producing the past,’ he writes, and this past he describes is not something material. Rather, it is the lingering presence of something long absent that continues almost inexplicably to shape our thoughts and actions.
In Freud’s Mourning and Melancholia, melancholy is described as the narcissistic ‘triumph of the object on the ego.’[i] As it happens in the array of national democracies described in Time Shelter, the thing that is remembered can come to consume the one that remembers, and it is precisely this that explains the narcissism of melancholy. As Gospodinov so beautifully writes, ‘we are factories for the past’ – we bring about the very thing that shapes us and from which we struggle to escape.
In an essay published in 2020 entitled ‘Writing from the Saddest Place in the World’ (as Bulgaria was dubbed by The Economist in 2010), Gospodinov wrote:
‘It’s no coincidence that every language has its own specific word for sorrow. Turkish hüzün, Portugese saudade … It appears that these are the sorrows of former empires who had everything and lost everything. The Bulgarian тъга (sorrow) is a bit different. To have this sorrow about something you have never had, to yearn for something in a world that has never been yours and that you have, nevertheless, lost. My mother’s sorrow about a Paris that she had never seen and would never see. My father’s sorrow about a 1968 that never happened in Bulgaria and never would happen. The sorrow over an entire world that has been denied to you.’
Melancholy, sorrow, loss, presence and absence, the past and the present – these themes run throughout Gospodinov’s work. In one short story, a man and a woman meet in an airport café. Both are married. They know at once that they should have spent their life together, and they also know that they will board separate flights and never see each other again. For fifty minutes they sit and invent a shared past: tales of childhood friendship, falling in love at university – ‘a pathetic attempt to take revenge on merciless chance that had brought them together, only to separate them.’
And yet by the story’s end, the man has changed irrevocably. He has aged. He begins to realise ‘more and more clearly that he could never go back home to his unattainable young wife.’ In the space of fifty minutes, something had changed: the man had been captured by a past that could have been his. It is a reminder that the past doesn’t have to be real to have real power.
Gospodinov’s work seeks not only to recover that shared experience from the particularities of his own personal story [...] but to understand what that shared experience tells us.
A collection Gospodinov co-edited, I Lived Socialism: 171 Personal Stories, can help us to understand his fascination with the question of the past. His life, he writes, is one of those ‘rare cases in which a person outlives a system. The system is gone but the person is alive and still retains the warm, living memory.’ Yet this ‘rare case’ is one shared by millions of people who lived behind the old ‘iron curtain.’ Gospodinov’s work seeks not only to recover that shared experience from the particularities of his own personal story (or that of 171 others) but to understand what that shared experience tells us.
This is what explains Gospodinov’s resonance. Despite his continual use of his own name in his stories, the writing is reaching, exploratory, and ambitious. At a reading in Berlin, Gospodinov was once told that his work wasn’t ‘Balkan’ enough. ‘When you come from a periphery, you are expected to tell local, regional stories,’ he writes, recalling that anecdote, ‘big, universal themes are for the major, central literatures…’ On the contrary, Gospodinov reminds us that big universal themes are found everywhere. As the disappointed Berliner lamented, ‘your stories are just like ours.’
Hence Time Shelter is a novel about Bulgaria as well as a novel about Europe. ‘How might I narrate my private sorrow (call it Bulgarian or Eastern European) and, through it, the sorrows of Europe?’ Gospodinov asks. ‘That is what I am interested in.’
For all the talk of melancholy, Gospodinov’s relationship with the communist past is far more clear-sighted than nostalgia. His desire in I Lived Socialism is to reconstruct and understand life as it was lived, without any of the political or ideological baggage.[ii] In his own words, to pay attention to ‘what had been ignored and kept silent.’ His generation had been immersed ‘in the monumentality of an ideologically normative literature.’ For them, a return to the little things came naturally.
In one of such attempts to return, Gospodinov created in 2006 a temporary museum and published an ‘Inventory Book of Socialism’. Both the book and the museum present a collection of objects from everyday life in Bulgaria under communism – like a bottle of Coca-Cola in Cyrillic writing, a material memory of a lost world.[iii] A lost world, no doubt, that many remembered fondly and so wanted to preserve, but a world consigned to the past by the very act of its preservation. For to place a Cyrillic Coca-Cola bottle in a museum is to identify it as a curious emblem of a bygone era, to render it as distant and deceased.
This is a crucial aspect of Gospodinov’s work on the communist era. The past is understood in exactly that manner – as lost. It may linger, and it may ‘radiate consequences,’ it may be ‘filled also with the seeds of a possible future’, but it is not something that can be recovered whole.[iv] He understands that one can never be fifteen drinking Coca-Cola from a Cyrillic bottle again. The bottle is emptied, it becomes an artifact, and our memories remain memories. That which you knew and lived and loved is gone forever. Part of the great comic sadness of Time Shelter is that everyone starts to forget this. Instead, the past becomes a place to which one retreats for shelter.
In the Bulgaria of Time Shelter, Gospodinov describes a past made flesh in all its absurdity. It is absurd because the return is impossible. What Gospodinov showcases in Bulgaria and across Europe is an orgy of nostalgia and re-enactment – politics as historic cosplay. The narrator attends a march organised by the political faction advocating for a return to communism. ‘Everywhere the once-ubiquitous “comrade” could be heard.’ A red flag flies. Down the road, a group of patriots are holding a rival parade, dressed as nineteenth-century cavalrymen, advocating a return to the days when Bulgaria rebelled against Ottoman Rule in 1876.
The mood sours: ‘The historical re-enactments are becoming ever more brutal, ever more authentic.’ A re-enactment of the murder of Franz Ferdinand by Gavrilo Princip in Sarajevo in 1914 that set off World War I goes wrong. The gun is loaded with bullets rather than blanks and ‘Ferdinand’ is shot dead by ‘Princip.’ Afterwards, the authorities intervene, and tensions rise: ‘Europe finds itself on the cusp of a second First World War.’
At this stage of the novel, the democracies of Europe are unravelling themselves. Amid this febrile temporal experiment, the sanity of the book’s narrator is increasingly questionable and the lines between past and present have been blurred. We are in 1939/2029, we are told. ‘The troops are assembled and waiting.’ A million and a half Wehrmacht soldiers are positioned on the border with Poland, along with artillery, submarines, destroyers… ‘We are re-creating this war so as to end all wars, someone will say on the radio, and this absurd tautology will unleash everything.’
That which you knew and lived and loved is gone forever. Part of the great comic sadness of Time Shelter is that everyone starts to forget this. Instead, the past becomes a place to which one retreats for shelter.
‘Tomorrow was September 1,’ are the novel’s closing lines, followed by a set of random Cyrillic letters. September 1, 1939 – the day Hitler’s army invaded Poland – Europe’s democracies had voted to return to the worst of all possible pasts and ended up once more on the cusp of annihilation. The farce of re-enactment threatens to descend into a real, hard, flesh-and-blood tragedy.
The past is seductive, and being seduced by the past can have consequences, Time Shelter seems to be telling us. At first, the past was produced only in a therapeutic clinic. But when it escaped into the democracies of Europe – just as Freud described the object triumphing over the ego – the longings of the past triumphed over the needs of the present, and the horizons of the future shrank away ever further as a result.
In Time Shelter, the problems of 1939 become the problems of 2029. But the problems of 2029, what happens to them? Do they go away? Have the EU officials solved their crisis or simply ignored it? Will a war be a welcome distraction? Could a cosplaying Europe drown under the hard realities of a changing climate while it dreams of days gone by? The novel leaves these questions unanswered. But they are there, and not to be ignored.
If we cannot escape the past, we also cannot shelter in it and ignore the present. Like the grandfather’s lover in The Physics of Sorrow, in that early scene that so moved me to tears, we are much changed by time. And yet the grandchild, who has arrived at our house in Hungary stirring memories and baring a name that we recognise from long ago, though the same age and deceptively similar in appearance to the grandfather who departed fifty years prior, is always a different man entirely.
Works by Georgi Gospodinov
And Other Stories, Alexis Levitin and Magdalena Levy trans., (Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 2007)
Natural Novel, Zornitsa Hristova trans., (Normal, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 2005)
The Physics of Sorrow, Angela Rodel trans., (New York: Open Letter, 2015)
Time Shelter, Angela Rodel trans., (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2022)
‘Writing from the Saddest Place in the World,’ Traci Speed trans., in Dimitar Kambourov and Michaela P. Harper (eds.), Bulgarian Literature as World Literature, (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2020)
[i] Giustina Selvelli, ‘Reflections of a vanished time,’ Philologica Jassyensia, 1.29, (2019), 262. [ii] Michael P. Harper, ‘Worlding in Georgi Gospodinov’s There, where we are not,’ Neohelicon, (2022), 7-9. [iii] Selvelli, ‘Reflections of a vanished time’, 253-259. [iv] Ibid, 267.