This Bulgarian writer's books bend time
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This Bulgarian writer's books bend time
The author Georgi Gospodinov in Sofia, Bulgaria, June 27, 2023. Gospodinov won the prestigious International Booker Prize this year for “Time Shelter,” a satirical novel exploring lofty ideas about nostalgia. (Nikolay Doychinov/The New York Times)

by Thomas Rogers

SOFIA.- When Bulgarian author Georgi Gospodinov was writing “Time Shelter” in 2019, he agonized over a scene he thought might be over the top, even for a work of absurdist fiction.

In the novel, a wave of nostalgia leads several European countries to organize large-scale reenactments of past events, and Gospodinov was unsure about a section in which a country re-creates World War II and invades its neighbor, causing widespread devastation.

“I thought maybe I should have skipped it, it’s too much,” he recently recalled in an interview in Sofia, Bulgaria’s capital. “But then it happened in February of last year,” when Russia invaded Ukraine.

It is one of several prescient scenes in “Time Shelter,” which was a bestseller in Bulgaria in 2020 and in May won the International Booker Prize for fiction translated into English.

The award has focused an international spotlight on Gospodinov, 55, but it also represents a coming-out moment for Bulgarian literature, which is little known outside the country.

Recently, several other Eastern European authors also received high-profile awards, including Nobel Prizes for literature to Olga Tokarczuk of Poland and Svetlana Alexievich of Belarus.

Gospodinov, who was soft-spoken and self-effacing in conversation, argued that surging global interest in Eastern European authors may be connected to a global climate increasingly shaped by nationalism and Russian aggression. Given the region’s decades living “in a totalitarian society” under Soviet domination, he said, “maybe people have this idea that we know something that is hidden to others” and that “our experience can be helpful for understanding what is happening.”

In addition to two well-reviewed previous novels, “Natural Novel” and “Physics of Sorrow,” Gospodinov is also the author of several books of essays, poetry and short stories. His fiction often features fragmentary structures and uses elements of his own personal and family histories to explore lofty ideas about time. He is so famous in Bulgaria, the country’s culture minister once said he would resign if the author told him to.

Gospodinov said he prefers to keep out of politics, though they are central to “Time Shelter,” which is about a clinic in Switzerland that treats Alzheimer’s patients by re-creating a happy period of their lives. As the novel progresses, the story morphs into an outlandish satire of European nationalism: Inspired by the clinic, countries across the continent hold referendums to decide which era they would like to re-create. Germany, for example, opts for the 1980s, and Sweden for the 1970s.

Gospodinov first considered writing a book about nationalism and nostalgia a decade ago, he said, after noticing a growing number of Bulgarians dressed in traditional, folkloric costumes and the increased popularity of historical reenactments.

“It was done in this stupid, kitschy way,” he said, adding that he believed this desire to relive the past was prompted by many Bulgarians’ hopelessness about the future, spurred by disappointment at the country’s transition into post-communist democracy.

Such feelings, he said, were then exploited by populist politicians, who “were dressing up the past as the future.” Following the 2016 Brexit vote and, later that year, the election of Donald Trump, Gospodinov said he understood that similar feelings were on the rise outside Bulgaria.

“This sense of sorrow is spreading around the world,” he said. “It is connected to a deficit of the future.”

The war in Ukraine, he added, was another reflection of these dynamics. President Vladimir Putin’s motivations in launching the invasion, he said, were tied to a desire to return Russia to a period of the Soviet Union when it held more international sway.

“This is a war not only for territory but also for time,” he said. “It is a war for the past.”

Mladen Vlashki, a literary historian who lectures at the University of Plovdiv, in Bulgaria, said Gospodinov’s work engages with “the problems with how Europe deals with the past.” He added that the writer had played a leading role in the reinvention of Bulgaria’s literature scene after the end of the Cold War.

Bulgaria was ruled by communists allied with the Soviet Union between 1946 and 1990, when the government often banned literature that did not bolster its political agenda. But afterward, Vlashki said, the state-funded literature scene disappeared.

“Bulgarian new modern literature has only existed for 30 years,” he added.

After communism’s collapse, Gospodinov was active in protests for democratic elections, and later edited an influential newspaper and co-founded a literary group that published ironic takes on canonical Bulgarian writers.

Angela Rodel — Gospodinov’s longtime English translator, who shared the International Booker Prize with the author — said the novelist has set himself apart from other Bulgarian writers through his “whimsical” tone as well as his international focus. “Time Shelter,” she said, explores his experiences in relation to the universal human condition and “addresses contemporary Bulgaria as part of Europe.”

She added that it was hard to overstate the significance of the International Booker for the country’s literature scene.

“It’s recognition of a small language, and a small culture, on a world stage,” she said. “It’s overdue.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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