‘Keep telling your stories!’ says Georgi Gospodinov whose Time Shelter has won the International Booker Prize

A Bulgarian novel about the poison of nostalgia takes the world’s top literary award

May 24, 2023 10:20 am | Updated 05:27 pm IST

Bulgarian writer Georgi Gospodinov holds up his book Time Shelter after winning The International Booker Prize 2023

Bulgarian writer Georgi Gospodinov holds up his book Time Shelter after winning The International Booker Prize 2023 | Photo Credit: AP

The most resonant of global literary awards, the International Booker Prize, has broken new ground in selecting a novel initially written in Bulgarian as this year’s winner. The accolade has gone to Georgi Gospodinov’s Time Shelter, a book described by the author in his acceptance speech as about ‘memory and time, the flood of the past and the weaponisation of nostalgia’.

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The choice has been widely applauded in the literary world. Novelist Elif Shafak, who writes in Turkish and English, tweeted that the decision was ‘truly wonderful news’.

Time Shelter (reviewed by the writer) is a hugely original and ambitious novel, touching on the temptation to retreat from a painful present to an imagined and unreal past, and dwelling on the totalitarian regimes and painful ruptures that have convulsed Europe, and Eastern Europe in particular, over the past century. At its core is the story of a clinical psychiatrist whose experiment to help dementia patients by locating them in the decade from which they take most comfort is so apparently successful that it is adopted at national level across Europe.

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Past or the future

Leila Slimani, the distinguished Morocco-born novelist who chaired the judging panel, praised Time Shelter as ‘a great novel about Europe, a continent in need of a future, where the past is reinvented and nostalgia is a poison’. Gospodinov recently declared: “Don’t believe anyone who tries to sell you the past or the future, the cheques are empty.”

Gospodinov and translator Angela Rodel

Gospodinov and translator Angela Rodel | Photo Credit: AP

Gospodinov’s homeland was once in Moscow’s orbit. In selecting Time Shelter, the award jury has chosen based on the excellence of his novel, but it may also be seen as reflecting on the existential struggle of another nation seeking to escape Russian dominance. Ukraine was not mentioned at the awards, but the winning author reflected in his remarks on the obligation, in time of war, “to tell the story from the side under attack.”

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Since the reinventing of the International Booker Prize in 2015 — as an award for a novel or collection of short stories originally written in another language and published in English translation — it has gone to books written in eight different languages. No nation or language has won twice. This year’s short-listed novels included works in Catalan and in Korean.

New voices

For the chair of the judges, Slimani — who recounted that she grew up speaking Arabic and French — extending the range of acclaimed novels is the great virtue of the International Booker. “The prize reflects what we all aspire to: diversity,” she declared at the late-night awards ceremony in London on Tuesday. On a literary level, it seeks “new voices and a new way of dealing with language.”

Leila Slimani, the Morocco-born novelist who chaired the judging panel

Leila Slimani, the Morocco-born novelist who chaired the judging panel | Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The esteem of winning the International Booker Prize will catapult Gospodinov to the top rank of world literature and will multiply many fold the readership for Time Shelter, his fourth book to be translated into English. Just as last year’s prize award to Geetanjali Shree’s Tomb of Sand enhanced the profile of the winning author and her book, and of contemporary Hindi literature.

Perumal Murugan was among those long-listed for this year’s International Booker for his novel Pyre, written in Tamil. But he didn’t make the cut for the short list of six. And it was always perhaps unlikely that novels by Indian writers would win in successive years.

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A clarion call

The prize is worth about ₹50 lakh and the sum is divided equally between author and translator, a rare acknowledgement of the totemic importance of an agile and creative translation in breathing life into literature in a new language. The translator of Time Shelter, Angela Rodel — U.S.-born but now a Bulgarian citizen, living in her adopted country and with bilingual children — was present with Gospodinov to receive the award. She said earlier that Bulgaria would have ‘a collective orgasm if we win’.

In a short and humble acceptance speech, Gospodinov, 55, recalled how as a youngster he always sought out in the library novels where the voice of the narrator is in the first person: because that means at the end of the book, the commanding voice of the novel will survive.

“As long as you are telling a story, you are still alive,” he declared, “and we keep alive and warm what we tell.” He then added a clarion call to his fellow writers. “Keep telling your stories!”

The writer, a former BBC India correspondent, teaches at the Asian College of Journalism in Chennai.

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