My father had Alzheimer’s for the past decade and a half and died this year. I was writing a memoir about him when Georgi Gospodinov’s Time Shelter landed. This left me both chagrined and happy because Time Shelter riffs on Alzheimer’s, the slipperiness of time, and the treachery of memory. Chagrined because Gospodinov beat me to it, and happy for the same reason because Gospodinov has taken an idea and flown with it in the maddest manner possible.
Time Shelter is narrated by a character named Georgi Gospodinov (G.G. or Gerry to fellow Bulgarians) who interacts with his creation Gaustine, named after St Augustine, who in 397 CE philosophised that time was subjective and that God lived outside of time. When we first encounter Gaustine, he appears to travel through time as if he were browsing a library of books. The novel begins on modern Europe’s most important date: “On September 1, 1939, early in the morning, came the end of human time.”
Gaustine sets up a clinic in Zurich for the elderly who are either losing their memories or losing themselves in their memories; in other words, for those afflicted with Alzheimer’s, who, like Gregor Samsa in Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, wake up and find they cannot recognise themselves.
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In Gaustine’s clinic, different floors represent different decades of Europe’s past, including one for the 1960s, a decade of hope for not just countries like Bulgaria that were behind the Iron Curtain (i.e. under strict control of communist regimes that were themselves controlled by the Soviet Union which returned to being Russia et al. in 1992) but also for countries like France that witnessed youth uprisings in 1968.
This is accomplished by the decor in each room on each floor: the distinctive furniture of a particular era, the colour, the magazines carelessly strewn on odd coffee tables, and even the brand of cigarettes whose butts are overflowing from ashtrays. For instance, Dr G. (heh), a fan of the Beatles, has his office decked up in the style of the 1960s, with a Bakelite gramophone, posters of the band, and tchotchkes from the decade, including a set of Volkswagen Beetle miniatures.
The clinic is inspired by (though not modelled after) the sanatorium in Davos, Switzerland, that is the setting of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain (1924). In this novel, the main character goes on a three-week visit to his cousin at the sanatorium and ends up staying there for seven years; when World War I breaks out, he goes to the battlefield where he knows he will die. (It seems that going back in time never ends well.)
Naturally, there are difficulties in going to live in the past. Which decade to live in? Lotte, a guide at a Dutch museum that the narrator visits before the clinic is fully set up, is asked whether she would like to live in the 1960s, the 1970s, or the 1980s: “She fell silent for a moment and gave the best answer that can be given to such a question: I’d like to be twelve years old in each of them.”
And then there are the practical difficulties: A patient dubbed “the runaway”, who has struggled for two to three years to retain his memories, is living in 1979 and follows very closely the life of John Lennon.Despite the Voyager giving humans the first photos of Jupiter’s rings and despite the Pope’s visit to Mexico, “the runaway” is content to read about Lennon’s foray into bread-making and an autobiography for which he had made tape recordings of his earliest childhood memories from Penny Lane. Until he has a suspicion that Lennon will be killed soon, and he runs away from the clinic—into the modern-day world where his memory-bubble is bound to burst. (I will not spoil how this turns out.)
- This novel is narrated by Georgi Gospodinov, who interacts with his creation Gaustine, who travels through time.
- Time Shelter riffs on Alzheimer’s, the slipperiness of time, and the treachery of memory.
- Time Shelter is filled with LOL moments, alongside rather sober pronouncements.
The novel’s turning point comes when the entire European continent gets seemingly afflicted with dementia (or, as some call it, Nationalism). Countries adopt Gaustine’s model of turning villages and towns into clinics of past decades, though, as Gaustine points out, it has its risk: “That’s how it began back in the ’30s—with psychiatric wards and geriatric clinics,” he says, referring to the Nazis’ first final solution.
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Still, the countries go ahead until it is decided that each will move into a decade of the 20th century. But the countries are polarised over which decade to regress to. So, a referendum is held in each to pick a decade. Time Shelter tells you the results country by country, in a most comical fashion. A referendum is a silly thing indeed, Gospodinov seems to be telling us: “There was a certain injustice in that—choosing the time the next generation would live in. As happens in all elections, actually.”
“The novel’s turning point comes when the entire European continent gets seemingly afflicted with dementia (or, as some call it, Nationalism).”
Time Shelter is filled with LOL moments, alongside rather sober pronouncements (such as no matter which decade we return to, we sooner or later all turn into our fathers). For instance, there is the aunt whose life’s peak moment happens when, as a student in 1968, she participates in a Youth Festival parade where marchers hold up flags that together comprise a giant picture of Lenin, and she is a strand in Lenin’s moustache. Equally hysterical is a march by Bulgarian nationalists before a referendum, where a giant flag flies in the sky above the marchers and then drops down upon them, nearly suffocating most. They save themselves by ripping the flag to shreds with traditional scabbards.
Yes, yes; Lenin, Lennon, the Beatles, the Volkswagen, Kafka’s insect: all mirrors of time. Gospodinov in his novel makes use of a lot of pop culture memorabilia not just to draw us in but also to make a point about the markers of collective—and individual—time. Time Shelter won the International Booker Prize this year and for good reason: it is a funny novel that demonstrates how to write satire in the least obvious way; it is a leap forward from Gospodinov’s prize-winning earlier novel, The Physics of Sorrow, about a Minotaur in communist Bulgaria on which an animation is filmed and put on YouTube. Time Shelter has a great idea, and it flies with it, and finds that all great ideas can only have absurd destinations.
Despite the witty humour and the touching sadness, it is not, at times, light reading. Digressions into abstractions can occasionally be tedious. But overall, it is food for thought. “Sooner or later all utopias turn into historical novels,” Gospodinov says, as he takes them down with his hilarious anti-history.
Aditya Sinha is a writer and journalist based in the NCR.