The Bulgarian writer Georgi Gospodinov has won this year’s International Booker Prize for his novel Time Shelter, a hard-hitting comedy set in present-day Europe that explores political populism and the way nostalgia can be exploited to create a confected past.
Leïla Slimani, chair of the judges, praised the novel as “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.”
Originally published in Bulgarian in 2020, the novel was completed before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but it offers timely warnings about the dangers of a reimagined history, especially how it can be used by politicians to promote their own ideas of national identity. The English translation was published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson in 2022.
It is the first time that the £50,000 prize, which will be shared equally between the author and the book’s translator Angela Rodel, has been awarded to a Bulgarian novel. The announcement was made at a ceremony at the Sky Garden in London on Tuesday evening.
Time Shelter centres on a mysterious protagonist named Gaustine who opens a “clinic for the past” that provides sanctuary for Alzheimer’s sufferers by reproducing periods of time when they felt content. Before long, however, healthy people are seeking refuge from the stress and tumult of contemporary life, and the “time shelter” develops into an all-consuming project.
The novel also explores themes of dementia, memory and the importance of individual experience. “I am from the generation which was paid with the cheque of the bright future,” Gospodinov told an audience at London’s Southbank Centre last week. “Everyone during the communist time promised us a bright future. Now, thirty years later, the populists are trying to sell me the pay cheque of the past. Don’t believe anyone who tries to sell you the past or future, the cheques are empty.”
The author, who was born in 1968 and has been described as “a Proust coming from the East”, continues a tradition for biting satire and melancholic humour that is strongly associated with Central and eastern Europe, and includes such authors as Milan Kundera and Andrey Kurkov. He is also a published poet, and the author of two previous novels, both of which have been translated into English.
“I think personal stories still matter. Because populists are very good storytellers actually, and we should be better than [them],” Gospodinov has said.
As well as Slimani, this year’s Booker judging panel included lecturer and translator Uilleam Blacker, novelist Tan Twan Eng, literary critic Parul Sehgal and the FT’s literary editor Frederick Studemann.
Previous winners have included the author Geetanjali Shree and translator Daisy Rockwell who were last year awarded the prize for Tomb of Sand, and David Diop and Anna Moschovakis who won in 2021 with At Night All Blood Is Black.
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