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24 May 2023

International Booker winner Georgi Gospodinov: “We’re living in the memory gap”

The Bulgarian novelist on the legacy of communism, the necessity of irony and why remembering is a political act.

By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

When Georgi Gospodinov was a young boy his grandmother baptised him and his younger brother and told the children not to tell their parents. This was the 1970s in Bulgaria, a socialist republic ruled by the Bulgarian Communist Party and a loyal satellite state of the Soviet Union. Practising Christianity was illegal.

Gospodinov, now 55, remembers his grandmother reading the Bible, which she kept wrapped up in an official communist newspaper. “We would both be sitting there and she would be whispering,” his voice took on a dramatic hush, as, laughing, he mimicked her: “ ‘And then, from the four corners of the world, four horses came…’ ”

His parents – his father was a vet, his mother a lawyer – kept secrets too. Gospodinov remembers his father locking himself in the kitchen to listen to Radio Free Europe and the BBC. When his parents spoke with their friends about the government, they would send the children out of the room. The young Gospodinov knew these acts were forbidden, so why were people he trusted breaking the rules? “The secrets were inside the family,” he said. “It was a schizophrenic way of living, because you knew that some things could be said only in the home. But outside, you should act like a communist pioneer.” 

These memories are typical of the subversive acts that ordinary people carried out in the Soviet bloc in the late 20th century. The power and politics of memory – what happens when a society forgets, who decides what we remember – is the central theme of Time Shelter, Gospodinov’s third novel, which on 23 May won the 2023 International Booker Prize. In the novel the narrator details his encounters with Gaustine, a history enthusiast who opens a “clinic for the past” in Zurich. Inside, each room has been carefully constructed to reproduce a specific era in minute detail, from the brands of furniture and the records on the turntable, to the cigarettes on offer and the smells in the air. Dementia patients visit the clinic and in old, familiar surroundings, their memories return.

Gospodinov does not have any experience of a loved one living with dementia, he said on the morning following the prize announcement, as he sat in a central London office with the American-born Angela Rodel, who translated the novel into English and will share the £50,000 prize money. “But it is one of my fears, of course,” he said. “It is one of our fears. It is a terrible disease because you lose your identity, your personality.” The novel raises very personal questions about the ethics of reviving someone’s memory. When a survivor of a Nazi concentration camp visits the clinic, the experience awakens horrific memories and she grows afraid of taking a shower or seeing a doctor. There are more politically mischievous sections too. In another case, Mr N, an Alzheimer’s patient who has no living relatives, visits the clinic with the only person who can intimately recount his life: the former police agent who kept tabs on him for years.

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[See also: What Martin Amis taught me]

Gospodinov, who was born in Yambol, in the country’s south-east, and now lives in Sofia, its capital, is one of Bulgaria’s most renowned writers and public intellectuals. He began writing Time Shelter in 2016. It was published in 2020 in Bulgarian and in 2022 in English by Weidenfeld & Nicolson. In 2016, as Gospodinov witnessed Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” campaign in the United States and Brexit in the UK, he began to think about how dangerous nostalgia can be. In his novel the clinic is a huge success and healthy people begin to visit as a way of escaping the horrors of the present day. Soon Gaustine is meeting European Union officials, who decide that member states are to hold referendums on which decade or year from the 20th century each will to return to. “Since a Europe of the future is no longer possible, let’s choose a Europe of the past,” they say. Citizens begin re-enacting past events, with horrific outcomes.

Today we are living with a “memory gap”, said Gospodinov, who wore a navy blazer and a blue shirt, his silver hair closely cropped and his eyes a bright blue. He spoke mainly in English, occasionally turning to Rodel for help with a turn of phrase. There is a literal problem with society losing its memory – more than 55 million people have dementia worldwide, while the number of people who remember defining 20th-century events such as the Second World War is dwindling. There is also a more metaphorical one, as politicians encourage nostalgia for their own gain.

“The past that populists sell to us is a very one-dimensional past,” Gospodinov said. “We become very vulnerable to those who are selling the past. It happens now all over the world, not only in Bulgaria. We got very used to forgetting. The new media, the social media, has become the media of forgetting, of oblivion. I naively believe that literature, as an old media, can help with that, to push back, because it slows down the process of forgetting. A person remembers through stories.” 

Gospodinov wrote Time Shelter before Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022, but the novel’s closing scene, a re-enactment of the German invasion of Poland on 1 September 1939, is eerily prescient of Vladimir Putin’s attack. Russia’s war, Gospodinov said, “is a war of the past”.

Gospodinov is the first Bulgarian author to win the International Booker Prize. “We are used to losing!” he said, laughing. “We’ve always been on the losing side, in all the wars that Bulgaria has taken part in.” He recalled watching football matches with his father as a child, and being “mentally prepared” for his national team’s defeat. Just once did Bulgaria win a knock-out game, beating Germany in the 1994 World Cup quarter-finals. “I was watching with my dad. He started crying and I couldn’t believe it.”

The win was so rare that it has been ingrained into Bulgaria’s national consciousness, Rodel said. That morning, the pair had read countless posts and messages online that compared their literary triumph with the football victory: “It’s like 1994! Bulgaria wins!”

The themes of Time Shelter are dark, but Gospodinov renders them with playfulness and deep irony, qualities he considers part of the Bulgarian storytelling tradition. “You couldn’t survive without irony, in our places and our times,” he said. He remembered an Economist article from 2010 that described Bulgaria as the saddest place on Earth. His voice cracked as he put on a self-deprecating tone: “So how could you survive in the saddest place in the world without irony and self-irony? One of the superpowers of Bulgarian storytelling is to be self-ironic. It is very important for surviving.”

“Bulgarians are very pessimistic,” said Rodel, who grew up in Minnesota and first visited Bulgaria in 1996, aged 23. She has lived in the country since 2004. “It’s a defence mechanism because it has had a very traumatic history. For 500 years it was part of the Ottoman Empire and didn’t have any agency, and then it was part of the Soviet bloc. So there is this idea that it’s better not to hope because nothing depends on us. It’s better to imagine the worst, so if something good happens then it’s a surprise. It’s part of the national psychology, and for good reason.”

Rodel shares Gospodinov’s interest in the way in which Bulgarians – and people of all nations – perform the past. While studying Russian literature at Yale she joined the Slavic Chorus, and first visited Bulgaria to study the country’s folk music. “I totally get why [the past] is so powerful and so hypnotic, because I was sucked in.” She still performs music as well as her translation work.

Gospodinov’s “playfulness comes at the level of the language” as well as his amusing plotlines, Rodel said. The novelist nodded: “My books are full of traps, illusions, referentials, quotations and hidden quotations.”

As a child Gospodinov didn’t just listen to his grandmother’s Bible readings. She would tell him stories too, tales passed down via the oral tradition, which ignited in him a love of combining magic with the everyday. He learnt to read from an early age, and his first writing memory is of noting down, aged six, a recurring nightmare in order to dispel it. He quickly became sensitive to language, realising that the jargon his school teachers used was “кух”, he said, turning to Rodel. “Empty,” she explained, “hollow, just platitudes that didn’t mean anything, just the ritual for the sake of it.”

Gospodinov was 23 in 1989 when the Soviet bloc collapsed. In 2004, with friends, he began collecting personal recollections of life under socialism in Bulgaria. He set up a website to which people could submit their stories, and visited those who were not online, in towns and villages across the country. The project was published as a book, I Have Lived Socialism. “It was a problem in the beginning,” he recalled. “People forgot to tell their stories, because communism was not interested in personal stories. They suppress personal stories. For me this everyday memory was important. This is the real way to work with memory.”

[See also: Europe’s false dawn]

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