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Prophetic Bulgarian novel wins International Booker Prize

Bulgarian writer Georgi Gospodinov has won the prestigious award for his novel 'Time Shelter,' a story of patriotic nostalgia also driving Russia's invasion of Ukraine

Deutsche Welle Published 25.05.23, 02:37 PM
Georgi Gospodinov.

Georgi Gospodinov. Deutsche Welle

"We tend to live in the past, to bury our heads in the sand and escape from the present. Sometimes we even think the past is our future," said acclaimed Bulgarian author, Georgi Gospodinov.

He is referring to the theme of his International Booker Prize-winning novel, "Time Shelter," a darkly comedic story about the dangerous appeal of nostalgia and seeking refuge in the past.


In Gospodinov's novel, going back in time is initially used as therapy for Alzheimer's and dementia patients. But the idea becomes dystopian as referendum are held across Europe to choose a decade to which everyone can return to,. The decision ultimately leads to the outbreak of World War III.

For 55-year-old Gospodinov, one of Bulgaria's most internationally renowned writers, "Time Shelter" is a warning to what could become a reality, more than one year into Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

"The war against Ukraine is a referendum on Russia's past," the author said. Russian president Vladimir Putin wants to restore his nation's borders to where the Soviet Union reigned when it collapsed in 1991, he believes.

"Finally time will be turned back to September 1, 1939, to the beginning of World War II," the author added.

The writer sees many parallels with 1939. "Putin went into the Ukraine war claiming that Ukraine simply did not exist — reminiscent of the way Stalin invaded Poland on September 17,1939."

Gospodinov believes that nationalism — which is partly founded on glorifying and repeating the past — is the greatest threat to Europe today.

"Europe should be resistant to this virus, and yet it has been spreadingmore and more in recent years," says the author.

The Times compared Gospodinov to George Orwell," his work echoing Orwell's dictum from his dystopian novel, "1984": "He who controls the past controls the future."

The internationally aclaimed writer believes, however, that today's nationalist movements are trying to replace people's historical memory with a false past.

In his novel, Bulgarians are given two alternatives when voting on the decade they want to return to: they can choose to return its years of socialism behind the Iron Curtain pre-1989; or to an unspecified "golden era" characterised by patriotic nationalism. In the end, a mixture of both prevails.

This is exactly what Gospodinov is currently observing in his homeland, where many Bulgarians are campaigning against their state's support for Ukraine.

Participants in so-called "peace demonstrations" claim to be Bulgarian patriots demonstrating for Bulgarian neutrality, yet Russian flags fly at their marches.

Gospodinov says that the situation has been exploited by manipulating the past. "They sell an invented plastic past, where it doesn't matter whether you wave the Bulgarian or the Russian flag," he said.

The writer, poet and playwriter has been successfully crafting stories for around 25 years.

Gospodinov's first novel, "Natural Novel" (1999), is the most translated Bulgarian book after the fall of the Communist dictatorship in 1989.

Meanwhile, the animated film adaptation of his short story, "Blind Vaysha" (2001), was nominated for Best Animated Short Film at the 2017 Academy Awards.

More recently, the English translation of "Time Shelter" won the prestigious Italian Strega European Prize in 2021.

Gospodinov latest work intersects with a human struggle for survival in Ukraine.

"The war will eventually end, but our memory of it will remain," Gospodinov said."We will continue to think and experience the war; so it is very important what memory we have of it."

The author hopes it is a memory of "the last war imaginable."

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