Time Shelter: when the past dominates the world

The latest novel by Bulgarian author Georgi Gospodinov: ‘Time Shelter’ (Времеубежище)

Unusual stories from the perspective of a passer-by

The Bulgarian author Georgi Gospodinov (born 1968, living in Germany) has attracted international attention with a number of his books, translated in various languages. He won national and international literary awards with his books, which combine his personal experiences with socialist and post-socialist Bulgaria, nostalgia of his motherland in which he no longer lives and a sense of the absurdity of reality with intelligent humor and the talent of a genuine story-teller.

With his postmodern style Gospodinov does not want to explain the world to the reader and even less does he have a clear idea of a desirable or inevitable future. In his novels and short stories, the narrator is often an accidental passer-by, who offers an unusual view of the world, finds events that do not happen just as important as those that do, and who leaves the distinction between fantasy and reality to the reader. In the fragmented mosaics of loosely connected and layered stories, he ‘de-constructs’ the word rather than designing or explaining it. This was true for the stories and essays in ‘Invisible crises’ and for his novel ‘Natural Novel’, which I read before. Even without the barriers of the Bulgarian language these books present the reader with some puzzling texts. His latest novel ‘Time shelter’ shares this character with his earlier work.

The combination of humor, sadness and fear also comes back in his latest book, in the collage of stories that express a sense of ‘not-belonging to the world.’[1]непринадлежност, this word, meaning ‘not-belonging’, is often used by Gospodinov. And once again he treats us to a splendid collection of anecdotes and absurd stories, drawing on a rich collection of historical facts and narratives, world literature and popular culture.

Escaping from time

The theme that connects the short chapters of this almost 400-page book, organized in five parts, is the escape from time. What happens to people, when they can no longer live in the present and bring time to a halt? In the beginning of the book, the first-person narrator (Gospodinov) meets a certain Gaustin, who as a psychiatrist-gerontologist is then working with people suffering from dementia. Whether Gaustin, who plays the role of visionary thinker in the book, is really a separate person, or merely a fantasy in the mind of the narrator, remains an open question. ‘Gaustin. First I invented him and then I met him in the flesh. Or was it the other way around? I don’t remember.’[2]page 23: Гаустин, когото първо съчиних, после срещхах от плът и кръв. Или беше обратното, не помня.

But it does not matter, really; Gaustin’s role is to present the core idea of the book, i.e. what happens, when people escape from time. In part I Gaustin works in Switzerland – as a ‘timeless’ country it is ideal for his project -, creating a clinic for people suffering from dementia. It offers the patients the opportunity to live in an environment that corresponds to a time they can still remember. The clinic grows, as new time environments are added on different floors. Each floor is inhabited by people who feel at home in the specific period of their floor. This multi-time environment leads to hilarious situations, which Gospodinov describes with the sad humor at which he excels.

This situation designed by Gaustin gets completely out of hand, however. The virus of the past has been planted. Invisible, unnoticed, but unstoppable the virus spreads. Gospodinov finished his book during the Covid-19 crisis, a pandemic that had been unthinkable before. The virus of the past and Covid-19 show an interesting parallel. In the book, the first contagions happen in families: relatives of patients with dementia feel attracted to a life in a past of their own choosing. The next step in this epidemic is a spread beyond the walls of the clinic and then across borders to other countries. ‘Back to the past’ becomes a Europe-wide movement. The book offers colorful stories of this movement in various places and countries. There appears to be a parallel between these stories and the longing for an imaginary and idealized past in present-day politics: from Trump to Putin and right-wing political parties in Europe.

What past do we choose: insurgents and socialists in Bulgaria

‘And then the past began to dominate the world.’[3]И тогава миналото тръгна да завладява света…  Thus begins the second part of the book. There we read how leaders, advised by Gaustin, make endeavors to control the epidemic of the past. A European referendum is developed, in which the inhabitants of each country can decide on the period of recent history in which they wish to live. The orderly process thus designed allows each country to have its own time, independently of what other countries choose.

Bulgaria is the first country for which the book describes this absurd process (part 3). In the end, two currents dominate the debate – they happen to bear some resemblance to political currents in present-day Bulgaria. The first chooses the period of the (failed) April uprising of 1876 against the Ottoman authorities (like described by Vazov in his famous book ‘Under the Yoke’[4]See blog https://huibertdeman.nl/wp/2021/01/04/het-romantische-geheugen-van-bulgarije-onder-het-juk/). The second current wants to return to the period of socialism. Both movements organize meetings and events, in which the narrator participates, in one of them dressed up as a nineteenth century rebel and in the other one as a socialist. The personal experience of Gospodinov with Bulgarian socialism and his historical knowledge of the ‘rebirth’ (or revival[5]възраждане is the word that literally means rebirth. It is used for the period in which Bulgaria liberated itself from Ottoman rule. The word assumes a return to an original and pure past, … Continue reading) of Bulgaria make this chapter a delight to read.

A description of a large-scale event in which the April uprising is reproduced is a splendid expression of the sad humor of Gospodinov. The event is a complete failure and therefore very successful, as the historical uprising was a fiasco too! Apparently such reproductions of history are an impossibility. Thousands of actors and extras are used to revive the historical reality – it seems that Gospodinov was inspired by historical productions that are organized in Bulgaria to commemorate important events.  But even a grand staging of a recycled past does not result in a new present. Whether Gospodinov has thought of Baudrillard, I do not know, but the image of a reality that is completely fake, while fiction takes over reality, does remind of the simulacra of the French philosopher: constructions that do not refer to anything than to themselves.

In the story, for that matter, Bulgaria does not manage to choose one past for its future (!). A rather dim compromise is produced: a choice for a mixture of brave insurgents and loyal socialists. At the same time the country decides to completely shut itself off from the rest of world. The narrator manages to leave the country just in time, before the borders are closed. The reality of the narrator and that of the author, who works outside Bulgaria and looks at his motherland from a distance, seem to coincide here.

Europe’s time map

The narrator finds refuge in Switzerland, where he shuts himself up in a monastery, in a room with a good internet connection. There he follows the referendum in the countries of Europe (part 4). For each country he shows what different pasts are seen as options and how the choice is made. This leads to interesting reflections on the relationships between countries and periods of time as well as the relevant ideas in these periods. Gospodinov’s research of old documents and newspapers – he did not write this chapter in a Swiss monastery but in an American library – adds a lot of historical detail to these chapters. Yet, I found this part of the book less captivating than the rest. The story seems to lose momentum as a consequence of long enumerations of (real as well as contrived) facts. I missed the melancholy and humor of part 3 about Bulgaria.

Anyway, at the end of this part of the book we have a map op Europe, on which every country lives in a different time. Clothes, cars, domestic appliances and many other objects are adapted to the chosen past. Old technologies, such as the typewriter are re-introduced, modern technologies (like the computer) are abolished . Things do not completely go as planned in the orderly referendums, however. Many people do not conform to the new official past, but prefer to live in the time they voted for themselves. This leads to a complete fragmentation of time. No longer do people share one time. Or has time come to a complete stop?

At this point, Gaustin, whose design triggered the epidemic of collective dementia,  disappears from the story. He decides to retreat to 1939, a year that has earlier been designated as ‘the end of human time’. The narrator is then in charge of the clinic, a task that he hardly gives substance to in the book.  Does Gaustin still exist, or has he chosen to make an end to his own life? He is still there, according to the narrator; how could he be dead, while I am still alive? This confirms that in fact Gaustin and the narrator are (two aspects of) one person.[6]За миг си помислих, че е решил да свърши със себе си. Но ако аз съм жив, може ли Гаустин да е мъртъв…

Things get out of hand

Pandora’s box has been opened, a monster of the past has been created, which can no longer be controlled. This image opens the fifth part of the book. Time seems to have come to a complete stop; it has become an open clinic for the past, which now has a firm grip on everything. This last part of the book no longer deals with Gaustin’s experiment, the clinic or the time choices of countries, but it focuses on the narrator himself, who seems to have lost his own sense of time. The text becomes fragmented, full of doubt and amnesia. The narrator’s notebooks, including his sketches, have become a aids for his impaired memory, helping him to make some sense of the world. We see someone wandering in time, clinging to words and sketches of faces. However, this part also contains a fascinating account of a staged beginning of the First World War, when Franz Ferdinand was murdered in Sarajevo. The actor playing the role of the archduke gets killed in this staged event. And so we read a story about the beginning of the ‘Second First World War’. This is Gospodinov at his best: sad absurd humor rooted in historical knowledge.

Epilogue and an encore

As a genuine postmodernist Gospodinov does not like conclusions. The end of a novel is something unnatural for hum. He finds the beginning of things more interesting: one should remember the beginning of things, not their end. In his role of narrator he puts everything he was written in a perspective of indeterminacy:

I don’t remember if I thought up Gaustin or he invented me. Or whether there existed such a clinic for the past, or maybe it was just some idea, a sketch in a notebook or an accidental newspaper clipping. And whether the flooding by the past has already happened or is about to begin tomorrow…[7]Вече не помня аз ли измислих Гаустин, или той – мен. Имаше ли такава клиника  за минало, или това беше само … Continue reading

Gospodinov does not like an ending. That is why he continues a little after the epilogue with a splendid story about a staged reconstruction of a situation from 1938, the beginning of World War 2, the moment which earlier in the book has been called ‘the end of human time’, to which his alter ego Gaustin has returned earlier.  With this encore the book comes to a full circle.

A book to be read and translated

This book deserves to be read. Let us hope, therefore, that an adequate English translation will be available soon. First of all, because Gospodinov is a gifted story-teller. Just like in his books with short stories and essays, in ‘Time Shelter’ he excels at anecdotes and reflections in fragments within the framework of the book. The book is a kaleidoscopic, rather fragmented and at times chaotic whole, containing sharp observations, witty twists, saddening reflections and surprising interpretations.  A second reason is the book’s theme. Gospodinov may not be someone with a message or a mission to change or improve the world, he does offer some insights from which we may benefit. A frozen image of an idealized past is a fixed ingredient of political ideologies. Gospodinov has an aversion to such ideologies, as we know from his writing about the communist past of Bulgaria. The problem with utopias, he noticed, is that they can be realized. ‘Time Shelter’, in which the freezing of the past is brought on an absurd level, shows that this means the end of humanity. He also shows that, paradoxically, clinging to the past is caused by amnesia. Who really knows, for example, what happened during the socialist past, cannot uncritically long for a return to that period, as a dialogue in the book illustrates. This thinking about ‘collective dementia’ could be understood as a plea for historical knowledge, not in the form of petrified canons of history or a ‘politically correct’ interpretation of the past. No, whoever wants to be free from the power of the past needs to know many (different) stories about it. De erudite Gospodinov is an example of this himself: he is full of stories and draws on a rich cultural memory.

This erudition, however, may also be a problem for the reader. Gospodinov is continually citing, implicitly and explicitly. The title of part 3, ‘A separate country’, is an example: with a wink it refers to the theory developed by Stalin and Bukharin in 1924 concerning ‘socialism in one country’, in which they rejected (Lenin’s) socialist internationalism. I discovered this allusion when I read a Bulgarian review of the book by Vladimir Shumelov[8]Владимир Шумелов, “ВРЕМЕУБЕЖИЩЕ” НА ГЕОРГИ ГОСПОДИНОВ https://liternet.bg/publish26/vladimir-shumelov/gospodinov-vremeubezhishte.htm Part 3 is … Continue reading(who erroneously attributed the theory to Lenin, however).  Maybe one may expect the reader to be familiar with the story of Lot in the Bible, who turns into a salt pillar, when she turns around to look at Sodom. Maybe the story of the assassination of Franz Ferdinand in 1914 is part of historical standard school knowledge. But should we regard the literary works of Tolstoi, Mann and Hemingway as part of the reader’s cultural background? Or the books of Borges, Murakami and Houellebecq? Are the details of the Bulgarian April uprising of 1876 familiar to the average non-Bulgarian reader?  This continuous ‘hypertext’ with its numerous visible and invisible links to literary and historic texts from many centuries may be somewhat of a challenge for many readers. Wouldn’t it be useful for a translation to include a few references for some of the essential but less obvious links that might escape the attention of the international reader?


Books by Gospodinov

The book reviewed here:

Господинов, Георги, Времеубежище. Пловдив: Издателство Жанет 45, 2020.

Earlier work of this author that I read:

Господинов, Георги, Невидимите кризи: есета и устории (Invisible Crises: essays and stories). Пловдив: Издателство Жанет 45, 2013

Господинов, Георги, Естествен роман (Natural Novel). Пловдив: Издателство Жанет 45, 2015. First edition 1999.
English translation:
Gospodinov, Georgi, Natural Novel. Translated by Zornitsa Hristova, Dalkey Archive Press, 2005.

Господинов, Георги, Всичките наши тела: свръх-кратки истории (All our bodies: super short stories). Пловдив: Издателство Жанет 45, 2018.


1 непринадлежност, this word, meaning ‘not-belonging’, is often used by Gospodinov.
2 page 23: Гаустин, когото първо съчиних, после срещхах от плът и кръв. Или беше обратното, не помня.
3 И тогава миналото тръгна да завладява света…
4 See blog https://huibertdeman.nl/wp/2021/01/04/het-romantische-geheugen-van-bulgarije-onder-het-juk/
5 възраждане is the word that literally means rebirth. It is used for the period in which Bulgaria liberated itself from Ottoman rule. The word assumes a return to an original and pure past, which is of course a fiction. As I have shown in my earlier blog (referred to above) this is a romantic nationalist construction, strongly influenced by German romantic culture theories.
6 За миг си помислих, че е решил да свърши със себе си. Но ако аз съм жив, може ли Гаустин да е мъртъв…
7 Вече не помня аз ли измислих Гаустин, или той – мен. Имаше ли такава клиника  за минало, или това беше само идея, бележка в тефтера, случайно попаднало ми парече вестник? И дали всичко това ц прииждането на миналото вече се случи, или започва от утре…



Part 3 is entitled ‚Едно отделно взета страна‘, while the theory of Stalin en Bukharin has a very similar title in Russian:  ‘социали́зм в отде́льно взя́той стране́’.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.