An Exclusive Q&A with Georgi Gospodinov on Time Shelter

Posted on 6th June 2023 by Anna Orhanen

As ironic and entertaining as it is profound and philosophical, Time Shelter – the winner of the 2023 International Booker Prize, written by Georgi Gospodinov and translated from Bulgarian by Angela Rodel – is a glorious tale about the traps of nostalgia and the intimate and precarious ways memory narrates our identities and national stories.

In this exclusive Q&A, Georgi Gospodinov talks about the inspiration behind Time Shelter and the Bulgarian literary tradition, and Angela Rodel shares her thoughts about what it was like to translate this incredibly rich, playful book into English. 

How did the idea of ‘time shelters’, clinics for the past, come to you? 

Georgi Gospodinov: The question of what the past is made of has always preoccupied me. What smells, sounds, words, forgotten gestures? How does one reconstruct the everyday of the past? I came up with the idea of "clinics for the past" where every floor is furnished in detail in a past decade of the twentieth century. So we have floors of the 1940s/50s, then the 60s, 70s, 80s and so on. In the beginning, these clinics were for people with Alzheimer's and dementia, but gradually healthy people who were afraid of the future began to enter them. When I sat down to write the novel, this idea developed even further, and in sync with what's happening in the post-2016 world, the novel took a new, much more dangerous direction.

Your novel Time Shelter is concerned with many things, but primarily, with memory. What are your favourite books that deal with this subject? 

Georgi Gospodinov: Of course, when it comes to memory, Marcel Proust and In Search of Lost Time is the first teacher, a teacher of memory and of writing. This book is like the "madeleine" described in the beginning of that book. Borges is also a very important author for me, the short story 'Funes the Memorious' is one of the best things I have read. Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain was also constantly by my side. It's impossible to write a serious novel today that doesn't come into conversation with that huge book, a mountain of a book. It's also present in some way in Time Shelter.

Time Shelter is the first Bulgarian novel to win the International Booker Prize. How do you think Bulgaria’s literary tradition shaped Time Shelter?

Georgi Gospodinov: My novels quite often go beyond the tradition, not only the Bulgarian one, but the novel in general. Or rather, they like to play with different traditions. I love the Bulgarian tradition of storytelling, with its typical mix of dramatic and ironic voices. I also love the self-ironic tone that appears often. Poetry and the short story are strong genres in Bulgarian literature. Historically, there isn't much of a novelistic tradition, but there have been books mixing documentary, memoir and fiction since the late 19th century.

Were there any particular challenges in translating the novel into English?

Georgi Gospodinov: I have to admit that my novels are not at all easy to translate because they rely on language, on rhythm, on the individual sentence and each word. Angela Rodel, who has done a wonderful job, has more to say here.

Angela Rodel: Almost all of Georgi’s work is a challenge to translate. He cut his literary teeth as a poet in the 1990s, so even his prose pays close attention to prosody and rhythm. I try to capture as much of his cadence and sound-play as I can – the startling Hilde episode is one example. And of course, the book teems with Bulgarian realia (rakia, anyone?) in the hilarious historical reenactments of both socialist demonstrations and the country’s 19th century liberation movement. We tried to sneak in some stealth glosses and not weigh things down too much with footnotes; the narrator’s intimate, first-person tone helped me slip in some of these explanations relatively subtly (or so I hope).   

What does it mean to you for Time Shelter to win the International Booker Prize? 

Georgi Gospodinov: It's the most serious award for literature in the English-speaking world, it's incredible to have your book get this far, to be chosen in competition with so many strong books. I expect a lot more people (and it's already happening) to open the book and enter its clinic for the past, to think with Gaustine and the Narrator about what to do with a world of dwindling memory and an encroaching past. Because the past returns precisely when we forget.


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