When Bulgarian author Georgi Gospodinov wrote his novel Time Shelter in 2019, he wondered about a scene he thought was overdone, even for an absurdist novel.
In the novel, a wave of nostalgia causes several European nations to organize large-scale reenactments of past events. I wasn’t sure about the part where it would cause widespread devastation.
“I thought maybe I should have skipped it because it was just too much,” he recalled recently in an interview in the Bulgarian capital Sofia. “But it happened last February,” when Russia invaded Ukraine.
This is one of several prescient scenes in Time Shelter, the bestseller in Bulgaria in 2020 and winner of the International Booker Prize for Fiction in May, translated into English. be.
The award brought international attention to Mr. Gospodinov, 55, but it is also the moment when little-known Bulgarian literature outside the country comes out.
Other Eastern European writers have recently won prominent awards, including the Nobel Prize in Literature for Olga Tokarczuk of Poland and Svetlana Alexievich of Belarus.
In a soft-spoken and understated conversation, Gospodinov argued that the growing global interest in Eastern European writers could be related to a world situation increasingly shaped by nationalism and Russian aggression. bottom. Given that the region has lived for decades in a “totalitarian society” under Soviet rule, “perhaps people are embracing the idea that we know things that are hidden from others.” We might have,” he said, adding that “our experience could help us understand what’s going on.”
Gospodinov has published several essays, poems and short stories in addition to his two previous well-received novels, Natural Novel and Physics of Sorrow. His novels are often characterized by fragmentary structures, using elements from his own personal and family history to explore lofty ideas about time. He is so famous in Bulgaria that the country’s culture minister once said he would resign if the author told him.
Gospodinov said he doesn’t want to get involved in politics, but is at the center of a “time shelter” that depicts a Swiss clinic treating Alzheimer’s patients by recreating the happier times of his life. . As the novel progresses, the story turns into a whimsical satire on European nationalism. Inspired by the infirmary, nations across the continent hold referendums to decide which era they want to recreate. For example, Germany selects her 1980s, Sweden selects her 1970s.
Gospodinov first thought about writing a book about nationalism and nostalgia a decade ago, when he noticed an increase in the number of Bulgarians wearing traditional national dress and the growing popularity of historical reenactments. It says. “It was done in this stupid and kitschy way,” he said, adding that this desire to relive the past was fueled by the disappointment of the post-communist democratic transition for many Bulgarians to the future. He added that he believed it was driven by desperation for
Such sentiments were then exploited by populist politicians who “disguised the past as the future,” he said. Following the 2016 Brexit vote and the election of President Donald Trump later that year, Gospodinov said he understood similar sentiments were building outside Bulgaria. “This feeling of sadness is spreading all over the world,” he said. “It will lead to future deficits.”
The war in Ukraine also reflected these dynamics, he added. He said President Vladimir V. Putin’s motives for initiating the invasion were tied to his desire to return Russia to its more internationally influential Soviet era. “This is not just a war for territory, it’s also a war for time,” he said. “This is a war for the past.”
Mladen Vlashki, a literary historian who lectures at Bulgaria’s Plovdiv University, said Gospodinov’s work concerns “the question of how Europe treats the past.” The writer added that he played a leading role in the reinvention of the Bulgarian literary world after the end of the Cold War.
Bulgaria was ruled by communists allied with the Soviet Union from 1946 to 1990, during which the government often banned literature that did not strengthen its political ends. But after that, the state-funded literary world disappeared, Vrashki said. “The new contemporary Bulgarian literature has only existed for 30 years,” he added.
After the fall of communism, Gospodinov took an active part in protests for democratic elections, later edited a leading newspaper and co-founded a literary organization that published ironic interpretations of Bulgarian canonical writers.
Angela Rodel, who translated Gospodinov into English for many years and won the International Booker Prize with Gospodinov, said Gospodinov’s “whimsical” tone and international focus set him apart from other Bulgarian writers. rice field. “Time Shelter” explores his experiences in relation to the universal situation of mankind and “focuses on contemporary Bulgaria as part of Europe,” she said.
She added that it is difficult to “overstate” the importance of international bookers to the country’s literary world. “It’s about having a small language, a small culture on the world stage,” she says. “The deadline has passed.”