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Georgi Gospodinov: Времеубежище (Time Shelter)

We are in the usual Gospodinov post-modern territory from the beginning, as we are told All real persons in this novel are fictional, only the fictional are real.

Our main character is Gaustine (that’s what we’ll call him, even though he himself used the name like an invisibility cloak). We have met him before in Физика на тъгата (The Physics of Sorrow) but who is he? In this interview, Gospodinov states:
He appeared first in my poetry—most of the recurrent features in my work do. I wanted to begin a poem with an epigraph that I did not want to sign myself, so I had to make up a character and came up with Gaustine, a troubadour from the thirteenth century. The epigraph was three lines, something like: “The troubadour was created by the woman, I can say it again, she invented the inventor.” After the book was published, I remember running into my ancient Greek literature professor—the best in his field—in front of the National Library and he told me, almost guiltily, “All afternoon I’ve been searching for this Gaustine in the library archives and there are no sources whatsoever about him.” Which was a very nice compliment. So Gaustine just went ahead and found his way, appearing in different forms.

Gaustine himself explains that his father wanted to call him Garibaldi while his mother wanted to call him Augustine, after the saint, so he combined the two to produce Gaustine.

Our narrator who almost certainly is not called Ishmael, calls himself Ishmael. Later on it seems that Gospodinov himself is the narrator. Early in the book, his life seems to involve tracking down Gaustine. Indeed, there seems to be some doubt as to whether Gaustine really exists. Out of Gaustine’s earshot, I could say that I invented him so that he could invent this job for me.Perhaps he is Schrödinger’s Gaustine. Ishmael seems to think he may even be some sort of spirit. No matter. He is here in this book, corporeal or not.

Ishmael hears of him running a psychiatric clinic in Vienna. Gaustine is apparently a geriatric psychiatrist and his office is decked out in the style of the 1960s. He finds that patients seem to stay longer in this office and become more talkative, being more at home in a 60s ambience than in a contemporary one, presumably because, as they regressed to the past, the 60s were more familiar to them than the contemporary period.

Ishmael eventually tracks him down (at a literary seminar). Ishmael learns that Gaustine has a fascination with the past, poking round empty houses and taking old stuff. He seemed endlessly lonely and… unbelonging. That was the word that came to me then. Unbelonging to anything in the world, or more precisely to the modern world.

Ishmael loses track of Gaustine again but, eventually, with some difficulty, tracks him down to Zurich. Two major discoveries of the twentieth century tied precisely to time were made here, of all places, in Switzerland—Einstein’s Theory of Relativity and Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain.

Gaustine has come up with an idea, based on his patients’ reaction to this 1960s decor mentioned above. This involves letting patients live in the past.

Soon Ishmael and Gaustine are setting up places for dementia/Alzheimer’s patients to stay which look not like the modern world but like some period from the past, from their past. This, of course, has its own complications. Ishmael tuns out to be very good at sourcing items from the past. However, it means, firstly, setting up different decades and, secondly, of course, pasts for different countries. For example, he wittily remarks that the Bulgarian 1970s looked somewhat like the 60s in other countries, as it was only in the 70s that 60s icons like the Beatles and Brigitte Bardot became known in Bulgaria.

Not only do they set yup in various countries and therefore have the problem of making the rooms suitable for that country, there is a difference between the sexes. The men tended to remember footballers likeJohan Cruyff while the women tended to remember Barbie dolls.

A further problem is that, as he says, The past is also a local thing, which means even within a country, different people may remember different things because of the region they lived in or their socio-economic class. Gaustine had thought of building entire cities for his plan. And then there is another issue: The past is not just that which happened to you. Sometimes it is that which you just imagined.

Different people react in different ways. He cites the example of a Romanian, Mircea, who remembered nothing of socialism, his job and so on. He dreamed of emigrating to the United States. Everything about America, it was in his heart and soul. A friend had managed to escape to the United States and wrote to him about it so now Mircea remembers only the United States even though he had never been there. Wittily misquoting Tolstoy the narrator states Happened stories are all alike, every unhappened story is unhappened in its own way. We have various other variations, such as the Bulgarian who remembers his past only from the agent who monitored him in the Communist era. There’s no one else who remembers these details, even mistresses and wives forget after a time.

Dementia is getting worse he maintains. Indeed some kind of global dementia is coming. Clearly, as we have people living longer, this will happen. As a result, the clinics do well. As they started in Switzerland, they look into the issue of euthanasia. One of the issues old people face is that they forget how to kill themselves. Switzerland is euthanasialand. If you’re looking for a good destination for dying, we can help you.

Our narrator or, at least, our author, goes back to Bulgaria and we learn a lot about a somewhat imaginary Bulgaria. A key issue is that in Bulgaria as elsewhere, more and more people are turning to the past, such as looking back at their past, holding re-enactments, dressing in traditional costume and so on. Our narrator even has a friend who specialises in that.

But we go further. The EU decides that there will be a vote in each country, allowing it to return to a specific decade of the voters’ choosing. Gospodinov has great fun with this, as he examines several countries and what they might do and then they did do. The UK is omitted as, of course, it has already left the EU. (Gospodinov mildly mocks Brexit.) He suggests the French may have chosen the 1960s because of 1968 but they do not. Algeria and then 1968 were disruptive and people do not want disruption. Other countries have their own reasons for their choices,all of which are elucidated. The problem, however, is that people who have had the Internet, social media and smart phones, do not want to give them up.

It started to become clear that the time map of the new countries would last only a short while. The demons that the referendum had awakened could not be stuffed back into their bottles.
The world was returning to its original state of chaos
. Gospodinov takes us into an uncertain future at the end, a future where the past has greater effect. God is not dead. God has forgotten. God has dementia.

This a superb work on memory, the past, the future, death, forgetting and remembering. Much of it is fictitious, some merely Gospodinov ruminating on these issues. He comes out with a lot of interesting ideas, which will give you much to think about. I will leave you with this comment: Somewhere in the Andes, they believe to this very day that the future is behind you. It comes up from behind your back, surprising and unforeseeable, while the past is always before your eyes, that which has already happened.

Publishing history

First published in 2020 by Zhanet 45
First published in English in 2022 by Liveright
Translated by Angela Rodel