Bulgarian writer Georgi Gospodinov was the first writer in the language to be longlisted for the International Booker Prize. He was happy with the recognition but was pleasantly surprised when his novel Time Shelter made the shortlist and eventually won the prize on May 23, 2023. The win was big for him and Bulgarian publishing and a happy occasion for his countrymen.
In Time Shelter, a “clinic for the past” offers a promising treatment for Alzheimer’s sufferers: each floor reproduces a decade in minute detail, transporting patients back in time. Leïla Slimani, the chair of this year’s jury said while announcing the name of the winning book, “Time Shelter is a brilliant novel, full of irony and melancholy. It is a profound work that deals with a very contemporary question: What happens to us when our memories disappear? Georgi Gospodinov succeeds marvellously in dealing with both individual and collective destinies and it is this complex balance between the intimate and the universal that convinced and touched us. The translator, Angela Rodel, has succeeded brilliantly in rendering this style and language, rich in references and deeply free.”
In a conversation organised by the Jaipur Literature Festival, the author talked to Scroll about Bulgaria’s present-day troubles, the importance of memory, and why he writes “slow” novels. Excerpts from the conversation:
The first book of yours to be translated was Natural Novel (tr 2005) which was originally published in 1999. It is interesting to think about writing about your life as is. I would like to know if you have ever attempted this. Or if Natural Novel was also your “natural novel” in some ways.
Natural Novel is a very special novel indeed. It is a novel of continuous beginnings and interruptions. It deals with natural history as we know it from antiquity and the 17th century, but it also deals with the life and divorce of a man at the end of the 20th century. There are three main characters and all three bear the same name – Georgi Gospodinov. Their fates are strangely intertwined. One is a newspaper editor, one is a homeless person who has written a novel, and the third is a mad naturalist and botanist. Contrary to Flaubert, who said “Madame Bovary, that’s me,” I would paraphrase “Georgi Gospodinov – that’s not me.” Beyond the joke, I believe that each of us can be narrated in a hundred different ways.
In 2007, a book of your short stories in translation was published. After that came Time Shelter in 2022. Is there a reason for this long gap? Did you have any specific plans for what your “comeback” novel in English should be?
No, no plans, I’m just a very slow and perhaps lazy as a writer of novels. Or very demanding. I’d like to write only my best novels. A novel needs time, it’s like a garden that needs care and time to grow, to leaf out, to have flowers and trees. And only then to invite the reader in, like a bee that will gather its own pollen. Every sentence must be honey-bearing. I come from poetry, and I really want there to be no superfluous words in my novels.
You have worked with different translators for each of your books. I’m interested in knowing how you collaborate with your translators. Is a lot lost in translation or do we get a near-identical of what you had originally written?
In English, I am working with the same translator on my recent books – the wonderful Angela Rodel, with whom I won the 2023 International Booker Prize for Time Shelter. But I have different translators for each language, of course, and you know – almost all of them become close friends of mine. Translators are the best readers we have, the most attentive and the most demanding. I love answering their questions on the translation. I trust translators who have questions. We often discuss a word or phrase for several weeks. I don’t think my novels are easy to translate
Time Shelter is the first Bulgarian novel to make the shortlist and eventually win the International Booker Prize. Needless to say, it’s a spectacular achievement. What has changed for you since then? And Bulgarian fiction at large for international publishers and readers
When I first saw Time Shelter on the Booker’s longlist, I was very happy because it is one of the most valuable awards. And for the first time, someone writing in Bulgarian was in the nominations. I told myself that even if the novel doesn’t go on, I’m happy because of this step. Then everything got more exciting as the shortlist was announced and finally when the award was presented in London on May 23. I’ve never seen so many happy and joyful people in Bulgaria because of a literary prize. It was a wonderful experience. Even now strangers stop me in the street, thank me or just shake my hand. All of us need good news now and then. And I am glad that more publishers will be interested in Bulgarian writers after this award.
When you are speaking at a literature festival in India and readers tell you about how Time Shelter resonated with them, does it worry you a little that stories about fascism and violence in Europe seem familiar to people whose histories are so different from yours? Or does it make you hopeful that resonating with other histories makes our world a smaller, more familiar place?
The miracle of literature is precisely in the fact that stories from one place and time can resonate with people from another place who have very different experiences. I would love my novels to excite and create invisible communities of readers. Literature creates memory – even if it’s a memory of wars and misfortunes, that memory is important. Literature also creates empathy. And the person with memory and empathy can resist all sorts of lies and propaganda. This is why literature is humanly and politically important.
Time Shelter presents time as a circular concept – what goes around comes back around. Do you think the reason why we learn so little from history and tend to commit similar injustices, is because of this? Because if time was indeed linear, then we’d leave the past behind but that’s not how it is.
There are many concepts of time and I discuss some of them in my book. It is not quite certain that time is linear. In purely historical and political terms, we have witnessed dictatorships repeat themselves in similar ways, or wars that we think are no longer possible break out again, seemingly in the same way as before. And one of the reasons for this is the loss of memory of the past. The past feeds on our forgetfulness. Let us not forget that.
There is very little that we hear of Bulgaria in the media. Very little is known in popular history. And yet you have written a novel about Europe’s terrible past – some of which happened less than a century ago. If I were to assume that all is well with Bulgaria at the moment, in what ways does this troubling history of Europe at large affect the Bulgarian consciousness, if at all?
There is no peaceful place in the world today. And my country is no exception to this. My previous novel is called The Physics of Sorrow. In it, I try to explain where the specific Bulgarian sadness comes from. Actually, while writing the novel, I saw how Europe and the world were becoming a sad place, a place of anxiety. Now Europe is experiencing the first war after 1945, and this is unthinkable. Bulgaria is not far from this conflict, as it is also in the eastern part of Europe. The Black Sea is a common border with Ukraine and Russia. The good thing is that we are part of the European Union and NATO, but there are a lot of problems and quite strong pro-Russian propaganda. And people’s lives are not easy at all.
This is a difficult novel to read – the multiple timelines, the history to reckon with, the future to beware of. One cannot binge-read it. The novel rewards those who stick till the end. Does writing in an attention-deficit age affect your craft in some ways or is it something that doesn’t bother you very much?
This is a novel for slow reading. It is not for scrolling. But I believe slow reading gives more pleasure and meaning. I like to talk with the reader, I invite them to think with me, to walk through the book together with me. Besides, there are so many stories inside, some of them quite funny.
There is very little Bulgarian literature in translation to read. But let’s say that were to change soon, then which authors (or books) would you recommend to international readers?
I would recommend the writer Georgi Markov, who, alas, is better known as the victim of one of the most brutal political assassinations – the case of the so-called Bulgarian Umbrella, a poisonous stabbing in the centre of London, on Waterloo Bridge, in 1978. His essays, written in exile, are remarkable, as are his short novels from the 1960s, in which he managed to deceive the censorship in Bulgaria and bring to light many uncomfortable things about the communist regime. I would also recommend Vera Mutafchieva, she was a serious historian who specialised in the Ottoman Empire and wrote subversive, experimental historical novels in which East and West meet in unconventional ways and through unexpected characters. Also Yordan Radichkov, master of parable and absurdity, inimitable inventor of language.
What can we expect at Jaipur Literature Festival 2024 from your session? What are you most looking forward to?
Lots of stories, laughter and sadness, lots of interaction with the audience. I think we’ll find a lot in common. This seems to be the first participation of a Bulgarian writer in this legendary festival. I’m excited.
Georgi Gospodinov will be in conversation with Nandini Nair about his novel Time Shelter on February 4 at the Jaipur Literature Festival.