“Time Shelter,” a novel in which a wave of nostalgia sweeps Europe and entire countries consider living in past eras, on Tuesday won the International Booker Prize, one of the most prestigious awards for fiction translated into English.
Georgi Gospodinov, the book’s Bulgarian author, will share the prize of 50,000 British pounds, worth roughly $62,000, with Angela Rodel, who translated the novel into English. They received the award at a ceremony in London.
A complex novel, “Time Shelter” centers on a psychiatrist who creates a clinic in Switzerland to help people with Alzheimer’s disease. The clinic includes spaces that recreate past eras in intricate detail to help patients retain their memories, and the experiment proves so successful that the idea is taken up far beyond the hospital’s walls.
Leïla Slimani, a French-Moroccan author and the chairwoman of the judging panel, said in a news conference that “Time Shelter” was “a brilliant novel, full of irony and melancholy.” It contained “heartbreaking” scenes that made the judges question “the way in which our memory is the cement of our identity,” she added, but the book was also “a great novel about Europe, a continent in need of a future, where the past is reinvented and nostalgia is a poison.”
Reviewers have highlighted the political charge at the novel’s heart. Adrian Nathan West, in a review for The New York Times Book Review, said that when reading “Time Shelter” it was impossible “not to think of the reactionary sentiments behind Brexit and MAGA and even Putin’s Greater Russia irredentism.”
But Gospodinov was “too delicate to resort to crude political satire,” West wrote. “He is certain the flight into the past will not undo the conflicts of the present.”
The International Booker Prize is distinct from the better-known Booker Prize, which is awarded to a novel originally written in English, but it comes with the same prize money.
Gospodinov, 55, is the first Bulgarian to win the award. “Time Shelter,” his third novel to be translated into English, beat five other shortlisted books for the prize, including Maryse Condé’s “The Gospel According to the New World,” translated from French by Richard Philcox, about a child abandoned in Martinique who grows up to become a Christlike figure.
Slimani said in the news conference that judges took three hours to choose the winner but that “there was no shouting or bloody arguments.”
Gospodinov, who was born in the small city of Yambol, in 1968, is one of his country’s most successful writers. He was a poet before turning to fiction, and his first novel, “Natural Novel,” was published in 1999. The author Garth Greenwell, writing in The New Yorker in 2015, said that book “thrust him into the forefront of his generation of Bulgarian writers, the first to emerge after the country’s transition to democracy.”
Before the prize was announced, Rodel said “the country would have a collective orgasm if we win.”
Several of Gospodinov’s works have taken inspiration from Bulgarian society and politics or outside perceptions of Eastern Europe. His novel “The Physics of Sorrow” followed a protagonist in the saddest country in the world — inspired by Western clichés about the temperament of Eastern Europeans.
In a recent interview pegged to the International Booker Prize, Gospodinov said “Time Shelter” looked beyond his country’s borders and was inspired by the global turn toward populism. “I come from a system that sold a ‘bright future’ under communism,” he said. “Now the stakes have shifted, and populists are selling a ‘bright past.’
“I know via my own skin that both checks bounce,” Gospodinov added. “They are backed by nothing.”
Alex Marshall is a European culture reporter, based in London. @alexmarshall81
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