Bulgarian writer wins International Booker Prize for darkly comic memory novel

Bulgarian writer Georgi Gospodinov and translator Angela Rodel have won the International Booker Prize for “Time Shelter,” a darkly comic novel about the dangerous appeal of nostalgia

May 24, 2023 09:01 pm | Updated May 25, 2023 04:13 pm IST - LONDON

Bulgarian writer Georgi Gospodinov, left, holds up the winner’s trophy after his book “Time Shelter” translated from Bulgarian by Angela Rodel, right, won the International Booker Prize 2023, in London on May 23, 2023.

Bulgarian writer Georgi Gospodinov, left, holds up the winner’s trophy after his book “Time Shelter” translated from Bulgarian by Angela Rodel, right, won the International Booker Prize 2023, in London on May 23, 2023. | Photo Credit: AP

Bulgarian writer Georgi Gospodinov and translator Angela Rodel won the International Booker Prize on Tuesday for Time Shelter, a darkly comic novel about the dangerous appeal of nostalgia.

The book beat five other finalists to the prize, which recognizes fiction from around the world that has been translated into English. The 50,000 pounds ($62,000) in prize money is divided between author and translator.

Time Shelter imagines a clinic that recreates the past, with each floor reproducing a different decade. Intended as a way to help people with dementia unlock their memories, it soon becomes a magnet for people eager to escape the modern world.

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Mr. Gospodinov, 55, said he began writing his book about “the weaponisation of nostalgia” in 2016, the year of the election of Donald Trump and the U.K.'s Brexit referendum. He said it was a time when “anxiety was in the air.”

“I wanted to write a novel about the monster of the past," he said. "Because you can see in this time … that populist politics, actually, they paid us with the empty check of the past.”

French novelist Leila Slimani, who chaired the judging panel, said it was “a brilliant novel full of irony and melancholy.”

“It’s a very profound work that deals with a contemporary question and also a philosophical question: What happens to us when our memories disappear?" she said.

“But it is also a great novel about Europe, a continent in need of a future, where the past is reinvented and where nostalgia can be a poison.”

Mr. Gospodinov is one of Bulgaria’s most-translated authors. Time Shelter has also won Italy’s Strega European Prize for literature in Italian translation.

The International Booker Prize is awarded every year to a translated work of fiction published in the U.K. or Ireland. It is run alongside the Booker Prize for English-language fiction, which will be handed out in the autumn.

The prize was set up to boost the profile of fiction in other languages — which accounts for only a small share of books published in Britain — and to salute the underappreciated work of literary translators.

Last year’s winners were Indian writer Geetanjali Shree and American translator Daisy Rockwell for “Tomb of Sand.”

Rodel said she was grateful to the prize for rejecting the belief that “if you’re a good translator, maybe you shouldn’t even be noticed.”

“This is a creative process,” she said. “This is a definite collaborative work of art that we’re creating with our authors. I'm just endlessly grateful to the Booker for putting that out in front in this award."

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