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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Time Shelter

Georgi Gospodinov

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To purchase Time Shelter

Title: Time Shelter
Author: Georgi Gospodinov
Genre: Novel
Written: 2020 (Eng. 2022)
Length: 302 pages
Original in: Bulgarian
Availability: Time Shelter - US
Time Shelter - UK
Time Shelter - Canada
Le pays du passé - France
Zeitzuflucht - Deutschland
Cronorifugio - Italia
from: Bookshop.org (US)

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Our Assessment:

B+ : good, creative take on the weight of memory and history

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Frankfurter Allg. Zeitung . 6/4/2022 Sabine Berking
The Guardian . 20/5/2022 Patrick McGuinness
The NY Times Book Rev. . 10/5/2022 A.N.West
The Times . 30/4/2022 Simon Ings
Wall St. Journal . 6/5/2022 Sam Sacks
World Lit. Today . 9-10/2022 Ellis Shuman
Die Zeit . 5/6/2022 Volker Weidermann

  From the Reviews:
  • "(F)or all its focus on the apparently bygone, it could not be more timely. (...) The clinic is not just a place where Gaustine treats patients; it is also the perfect conceit for Gospodinov’s narrator to explore the 20th century in Europe through the vanishing points of traumatised or broken individuals. It’s as if Oliver Sacks and WG Sebald had collaborated on a Europe-wide chain of treatment centres. (...) This novel could have been a clever, high-concept intellectual game with little by way of emotional investment, but Gospodinov is a writer of great warmth as well as skill." - Patrick McGuinness, The Guardian

  • "It’s impossible, when reading all this, not to think of the reactionary sentiments behind Brexit and MAGA and even Putin’s Greater Russia irredentism, but Gospodinov is too delicate to resort to crude political satire. He is certain the flight into the past will not undo the conflicts of the present. (...) Gospodinov strays a bit after this, with a sequence of journal entries that exposes his narrator’s own cognitive decline. There’s a tacked-on feeling to the dreams and trivia at the end of this touching and intelligent book, and to his wandering around the New York Public Library" - Adrian Nathan West, The New York Times Book Review

  • "At times satirical, at others philosophical, the novel Time Shelter is written in Georgi Gospodinov’s unique “anarchic and experimental” style (.....) The underlying theme in Time Shelter is whether our memories of the past, real or imagined, can protect us from the temporal chaos outside our daily lives. In real life, memories may not shield us from that chaos, but in Gospodinov’s imagination, anything is possible." - Ellis Shuman, World Literature Today

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Time Shelter opens with eleven epigraphs, five of which are attributed to Gaustine, a shadowy figure who is a significant character in the novel itself, presented as a: "vagrant in time", someone who jumps: "from decade to decade just as we change planes at an airport". In this novel which constantly melds the real and the (re)created, the narrator -- author Gospodinov, for all intents and purposes -- presents the figure as: "Gaustine, whom I first invented, and then met in flesh and blood" (while near the conclusion he blurs the lines even further, claiming: "I don't remember anymore whether I thought up Gaustine or he thought me up"). (The character will be familiar to readers of Gospodinov's earlier collection, And Other Stories; indeed, the story Gaustine is reproduced (in Angela Rodel's new translation) in its entirety in Time Shelter, suggesting how long Gospodinov has been engaging with both this figure and this subject-matter.)
       The subject-matter of the novel is the past -- our memory of (and longing for) it, more than its reality -- and its weight in and on the present As Gaustine explains:

The time is coming when more and more people will want to hide in the cave of the past, to turn back. And not for happy reasons, by the way. We need to be ready with the bomb shelter of the past. Call it the time shelter, if you will.
       The concept Gaustine then comes up with is a variation of an idea the narrator already had -- for a novel, he admits, but still -- and, as Gaustine's assistant, the narrator then helps in the creation of what are 'clinics for the past'. Initially, these are places to help people dealing with Alzheimer's and similar forms of memory loss:
The point of the experiment was to create a protected past or "protected time." A time shelter. We wanted to open up a window into time and let the sick live there, along with their loved ones. To give a chance for elderly couples, who had spent their whole lives together, to stay together.
       The first clinic offers the comforting environments of their past, recreating bygone times -- with different floors of the constantly expanding clinic devoted to different decades (and, for example: "The attic was left for the 1980's and '90s -- they would be needed someday"). The narrator's role is as: "a trapper of the past" -- exactly, of course, one of the roles a writer assumes, in fixing stories and (re)creating worlds on the page (all the more obviously here, with Gospodinov weaving a character -- and some of his own writing -- he created decades earlier into the present-day text).
       The clinic-concept is a great success -- so much so that soon entire nations want to embrace the idea, to turn back time to earlier eras. The narrator notes that: "the first thing that goes in memory loss is the very concept of the future", and whole nations now give up on that, with all its uncertainty, seeking only a nostalgic return to (what is remembered as) the stability of the past. Gospodinov amusingly presents the different European countries, each holding a referendum to decide on what era to return to. As a Bulgarian, there's a lot about how that country decides, and the different factions and ideas involved, but many other European nations are also covered.
       It's an amusing thought-experiment -- not least in its radical rethinking of the concept of what we consider the nation-state:
     Okay, fine, but what happens now when Europe splits into different times ? Nationalism is territorial in any case, territory is sacred. What happens if we pull the rug out from under its feet ? There is no shared territory, instead it is replaced by shared time.
       Some of the consequences are amusingly spun out, such as that a return to older times requires all sorts of supporting material, and so:
Suddenly unemployment in the theater sector dried up. Theaters no longer needed to stage plays and could get by just by renting out costumes and props, old weapons, golden cloaks and Damascene swords ...
       Gospodinov has good fun with both the idea of the clinics and then of the national transformations, but he doesn't make this simply a straightforward alternate-world-building science-fiction kind of tale. The elusive figure of Gaustine -- truly traveling across time -- as well as the narrator's own personal experiences, especially in Bulgaria, past and present, make for a very personal perspective on the larger issues addressed here. The narrator does not wallow in past but can't escape the pull of nostalgia; he's torn between pasts and the present-day -- though he is also a firm believer in the notion that 'you can't go home again':
Some advice from me: Never, ever visit a place you left as a child after a long absence. It has been replaced, emptied of time, abandoned, ghostly.
       Yet he also recognizes the strong pull the past continues to have, the wish to return to what are imagined to be easier times.
       Recurring, too, is the date of 1 September 1939, when the world was on the cusp. Auden's poem features -- as the narrator asks himself: "When does the everyday become history ?" And the fallout of those times, around that pivotal point, suffuses Gospodinov's novel:
As Gaustine would say, whatever you grab in Europe today, it'll always lead you back to World War Two. Nothing was the same after 1939.
       This, and the later radical shift that came in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, are omnipresent in the novel. This also makes Time Shelter a decidedly European novel: despite touching on the United States -- Gospodinov was a Cullman Center Fellow in 2017-8, and the narrator describes some of his experiences from this time -- the reckoning here is entirely with the European past. In his chilling, brief conclusion, Gospodinov also suggests that Europe's future lies, hopelessly, in this inescapable past (a conclusion all the more resonant in 2022, as Vladimir Putin's grotesque attempt to recreate a lost past could be straight out of this story).
       The basis of the novel is a sort of thought-experiment, but Gospodinov uses that only as a starting point for a much more far-ranging work. He is not solely interested in speculation, in the what-ifs, but rather makes it very personal, interested in the individual as well as the abstract. Time Shelter is an interesting variation on the nostalgic novel. It is undeniably nostalgic, but Gospodinov also moves beyond that, his narrator and everyone else -- whole nations, indeed the whole continent -- also struggling with the hold and pull the past and memory, both lost and held, continue to exert.
       Time Shelter is a European story and a contemporary one, but much that Gospodinov addresses is also universal and, unsurprisingly, timeless. With a present, and a future, that many seem to find increasingly difficult to face, a pining for the past -- or its illusion -- has indeed come evermore to the fore.

- M.A.Orthofer, 8 June 2022

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Time Shelter: Reviews: Georgi Gospodinov: Other books by Georgi Gospodinov under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Bulgarian author Georgi Gospodinov (Георги Господинов) was born in 1968.

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© 2022-2023 the complete review

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