Taking Shelter in Time
“While previous research has suggested long naps could be an early symptom of Alzheimer’s disease, other work has revealed that a brief doze can improve people’s ability to learn.” Reading this morning’s headline, 20.6.23, I put it away in my bulging file marked, “How to Live Forever”. Geriatric medical know-how has become another of our cumbrous responsibilities and like all obligations has to be kept at arm’s length with a nip of cynicism. Everybody, like it or not, has become a specialist in old age, a geriatrician, ugh.
The Bulgarian writer Georgi Gospodinov, though still in his green fifties, took the task on with a proliferating grandeur in his novel, Time Shelter, written in 2020. The English translation by Angela Rodel has won the Booker International Prize (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 302 pages, 2022). Gospodinov’s inspiration was clear on page 69:
“Everyone was getting older….Alzheimer’s, or more generally memory loss, had turned into the most quickly spreading disease in the world. According to the statistics, every three seconds someone in the world developed dementia. Registered cases had surpassed fifty million—in thirty years they would triple. Given lengthening life spans, this was inevitable.”
However, the therapy Gospodinov offers strays from neuroscience into the labyrinth of fantasy fiction. Writing in the first person, he invents an associate, one Gaustine, who is absorbed in a crusade to ward off memory loss. The two of them launch a vast scheme to restore memory to those who have lost it. The plan is to plunge the afflicted into a recreated scene of their earlier life. A replica of their first nursery, love affair or divorce court will, it’s hoped, set their synapses aglow again.
Gospodinov is not a writer chary of words, invention or asides. He and his double or wilder self drive the scheme like a juggernaut through a distraught Third Millennium. Beginning as congenial, fireside medication, it becomes a network of clinics, a major business enterprise, and finally a restoration of entire historical periods that, going wrong, ends in universal upheaval. It’s an intriguing conceit. Readers with a taste for what-if fantasy will have a fine ride following through to the apocalypse. The more sober-sided might feel that a dose of memory loss might have been preferable to crashing civilization. Everyone will congratulate Gospodinov on the vitality of his anxiety and the breakthrough for Bulgarian letters that his Booker prize signals.
Not to diminish his literary acumen, I want to consider the author simply as a man, a Bulgarian, as revealed by the attitude beneath the dramatic surface of his novel. My excuse for any highhandedness is that I lived in Sofia from 1993 to 1998 and can’t throw off my affectionate attachment for the country.
Gospodinov’s Bulgarian gloom is foremost:
“Outside Bulgaria’s borders, people age more beautifully and more slowly, old age is more merciful elsewhere.”
He recounts a random meeting of Bulgarians in Switzerland. The first thing they do is sit down and agree on
“…the eternal sorrow and misfortune of being Bulgarian, a topic ripe for filling any awkward lull in the conversation. For a Bulgarian, complaining is like talking about the weather in England, you can never go wrong.”
“We’d bet on the losing team. We should be used to it by now, because Bulgaria always loses; besides, we’re not even playing in this game.”
He finally puts a philosophic cap on it:
“Why part with unhappiness, when it’s the only wealth some nations have—the crude oil of sorrow is their only inexhaustible resource. And they know that the deeper you dig into it, the more you can excavate. The limitless deposits of national unhappiness.”
This national melancholy predates Bulgaria’s knuckling under to the Soviet Union from 1945 to 1989. It was felt long before that during the centuries of submission to the Ottoman Empire. Today’s fervid nationalists, seeking to recall the country’s last moment of independent glory have been forced to go back to the 13th Century. The best they can celebrate in modern times is a 1876 revolt against their Turkish masters that was a total fiasco and brought disaster on their heads. The aim of Bulgarian marksmen had been perfect, but the target turned out to have been their own foot, first right then left.
Gospodinov was born in 1968. His memories that cram the pauses in Time Shelter’s action read like an encyclopaedia account of Western, not Bulgarian, popular culture. Yet he was trapped in his homeland. His youth seems to have been spent espying from beneath a stern Soviet wing the fun of his faraway coevals from Berlin to San Francisco. His Third Millennium talk of the Beatles first amuses then tires us. Can he not speak about anything else? I don’t mean more on his childhood yearning for bananas that weren’t on sale. But rather what was actually happening in Bulgaria.
When he does move on from delight in foreign pop culture, Gospodinov begins a solemn name-dropping of world intellectual figures, a multitude of non-Bulgarians. We only learn their names not their significance. It’s like a litany of saints with awe at their halos but no facts on their miracles.
Gospodinov sprinkles his novel with bits of comedy he calls Syndromes, strange doings of the human animal. But the reader can’t help gathering the examples together in a copious Bulgarian Syndrome, the habit of being forever decades behind where they would like to be. Blame the Turks, blame the Russians? It’s a key source of stifling national self-pity.
Gospodinov recalls the 1990s as a tumultuous time and sees the decade in his very own way. The Bulgarian Syndrome in operation:
“The ‘90s were our ’68, okay, so maybe a little shabby, a little second-hand, but still ours.”
My impression was very different. Let me set the scene. 1989 brought a collapse that led to the disappearance of the USSR in 1991. Bulgaria had been a faithful limb of the Soviet Redwood abruptly felled. Its students had studied Russian as a second language. Its industry had been integrated with its gigantic neighbour. Rare was the Bulgarian family that hadn’t a worker, skilled or unskilled, in Russia. They straggled home without their pay. At the same time duplicity in the Bulgarian government meant that the nation’s wheat had been sold abroad for personal profit. There was no flour for bread. And Russia was no longer there to help.
Sofia in 1993 outdid itself in gloom. There was a long queue all day at the bakery. Middle-class Bulgarians fainted in the streets from hunger. Hard currency holders could manage. I hired an ex-civil servant as a kitchen skivvy. Social hierarchy disappeared. It was possible to engage a respected surgeon to clip your toenails. The trams were full of individuals acting like bounty hunters. They were paid so much a head—pennies—for every ticketless passenger they turned in.
Glorious free enterprise had arrived but hadn’t put the cuffs on Bulgarians yet. The Bulgarian Syndrome called for a pause of decades’—and unspeakable chaos—while Bulgarians caught their breath and fell in line. Meanwhile, the retarded cold warrior Gospodinov, freed of Todor Pavlov’s lifestyle dictatorship, could now do his Beatles franchise thing full-time. But how could he escape feeling pathetic in his 1968, no longer illegal tight trousers waiting for his hair to grow long?
He sums up his Europe:
“Its mornings are Austro-Hungarian, its nights are Italian. The gravity and grief are Bulgarian.”
To leave no doubt about the grieving, he recalls a Bulgarian recipe, “Egg on a newspaper”:
“You set a piece of newspaper on the burner and crack an egg on top of it.…The scent of egg and toasted paper, a dry scent. I recalled how some of the letters would be imprinted on the egg whites.”
I’ve forgotten how to say buon appetito in Bulgarian.