Imagine you could return to a younger you when your health was better or things hadn’t gone wrong in life: when you were popular, had less to worry about and more to please you; when you felt stronger and, most important of all, were happier. It’s not precisely the premise of Georgi Gospodinov’s third novel, Time Shelter, but describing the wistful longing and backward-looking of nostalgia captures the basic premise of the social and political satire of this book. Gospodinov doesn’t employ a time machine as a device. He doesn’t have to. “There is no time machine except the human being,” our narrator, Gospodinov asserts. He doesn’t say that human beings are naturally regressive, but that’s kind of what we might infer. We find comfort in times past. When individuals seek comfort in the past it can be a panacea for pain and loss. When nations develop retrospectively, there is a danger of embracing reactionary ideologies that require selective amnesia.
Where this novel really begins is the sad loss of the past and identity by individuals who suffer from dementia. Gospodinov’s narrator (called Gospodinov) has a peculiar relationship with Gaustine, a geriatric psychiatrist who has developed a new kind of treatment for patients suffering from Alzheimer’s. He has established a clinic where each floor is dedicated to the recreation of periods from the past, roughly divided into decades. Each floor of Gaustine’s clinic is furnished with artefacts associated with its period, from the kind of furniture that is selected, the décor, the newspapers, music, toys and even the available food. An Olivetti typewriter placed in the living room of the 60s floor provides a tactile experience that has proved popular. As a clinical experiment, Gaustine believes the environment he provides is a comfort, and is beneficial because it assists patients to connect to more accessible memories from their earlier lives, helping them to be more responsive to treatment. Gaustine is also a pragmatist. He anticipates a market for his service, believing there are “enough people here ready to pay to die happy.” He is also ambitious. Gaustine has read the social zeitgeist and he anticipates a groundswell in the demand for the trappings of the past.
This sudden groundswell of people who have lost their memories today is no coincidence . . . They are here to tell us something. And believe me, one day, very soon, the majority of people will start returning to the past of their own accord, they’ll start “losing” their memories willingly. 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 a time shelter, if you will.
Gaustine’s words prove prophetic. His treatment gains notoriety and soon healthy people are coming to the clinic to escape the present in Gaustine’s ‘time shelter’. After that, as European governments struggle to deal with the challenges of their countries’ futures, the lure of the past takes on a political dimension. One leader, whose mother is treated at Gaustine’s clinic, sees the potential to gain time to address his country’s issues by regressing to a past national identity. Very soon countries all across Europe are preparing to hold referendums to decide exactly what point in the twentieth century their people wish to reinhabit. Old maps will be redrawn according to their temporal choices.
Gospodinov began writing Time Shelter after the Brexit vote, itself a nationalistic regression with not only economic but also cultural implications. In Gospodinov’s story Britain is denied an opportunity to participate in the referendum despite strong internal support. Brussels refuses their request. Nevertheless, the European referendum clearly reflects the retrogressive impetus associated with Brexit. In fact, Time Shelter throws a few satirical punches. The nostalgic yearning for national idylls that extol a utopian past require they be divested of their thorny particulars. Because to embrace an era like this is to necessarily forget its reality. Hitler’s National Socialist Party in 1930s Germany, for instance, consolidated power through self-mythology and appeals to a purer, better past. Now, in Time Shelter, it will be necessary for Bulgarians to forget the bombing of St. Nedelya Church in 1925 – “the bloodiest terrorist attack in a church at that time” – if they advocate a return to the 1920s: not to mention the apparatus of state socialism that surveilled its people and controlled them with lies, propaganda and even violence:
. . . all must be forgotten. And then forget the forgetting . . . Forgetting takes a lot of work. You have to constantly remember that you are supposed to forget something. Surely that’s how every ideology functions.
Each country votes for its own preferred period of retrospection: Germany is expected to avoid the 1940s, while the Czech Republic grapples with the thwarted hopes of the Prague Spring of the 1960s. But implicit in all these choices is the Orwellian paradox of forgetting.
These national experiments cannot be compartmentalised like the rooms of Gaustine’s clinic. While nations may assume the veneer of a past decade, re-enactments to revivify the past on a national scale are nonsensical. Demby, a former classmate of Gospodinov’s hires actors to rehearse the ‘spontaneous’ uprisings that will be re-enacted as a part of Bulgaria’s nationalistic agenda. And countries across Europe will adopt a hyperreal culture, in which the fake becomes real: the past as imagined and sanitised, will be the well-spring for a new social discourse. But in truth they will be remaking their countries in the image of a past that is akin to the hyperreal spaces of Disney or Las Vegas: mere veneers. The Sphinx, the Eiffel Tower, the Great Pyramid and the Canals of Venice can inhabit Vegas as hyperreal simulacrums shorn of their historical and cultural integrity, reduced to spectacles that evoke a new reality in an American context. In Disneyland the past and its various represented cultures are exploited as opportunities for spectacle and play. Neuschwanstein Castle becomes a symbol of Disney, itself, and history and culture are appropriated within the paradigm of American consumerism.
The postmodern experiment attempted in Time Shelter suggests the illusion of retroactive ideologies. Gospodinov is nominally writing about a return to the past, but as we read we are reminded of our present: Britain has rejected the European Union, and under a conservative Supreme Court America has now abandoned some of the social progress of the last fifty years. Gospodinov makes the point nicely when France’s ultra-conservative Marine Le Pen refuses to accept the results of the French referendum, echoing Trump’s own refusal to accept the results of the 2020 presidential election.
The countries in Time Shelter attempt to literally bring the past back to life – Frankenstein’s creature is routinely invoked – and it is unsettling. Bulgaria’s former Prime Minister, for instance, Georgi Dimitrov, is turned into a kind of grotesque zombie, his corpse pressed into service as a symbol of the nation’s re-invigorated past, by making it wave. Like Lenin, Dimitrov had been mummified and displayed in a mausoleum. His mummified corpse was removed and buried after the fall of Communism in 1989 and the mausoleum was later demolished in 1999. But in Gospodinov’s story the Mausoleum is rebuilt and Dimitrov’s corpse is reinstated as a nationalistic spectacle.
But the present cannot be denied by atavistic ideologues. Modern stakeholders who cannot be repudiated are the political reality. What is the place of powerful media and communication platforms in a country that returns to the 1920s? The social upheavals required of such a change foment resistance. Other realities of the present cannot simply be wished away either. When a descendant of the Archduke Ferdinand is shot with real bullets in a re-enactment that is meant to capture the flavour of the past, he is killed for reasons not associated with the historical murder and with consequences that have entirely modern implications. What is offered is a remembered past that reduces history to the service of political expediency. It’s an old story that requires a surrender of the self to a new narrative based just as much on forgetting as remembering.
The fluid nature of remembering is suggested through stories of patients who are treated in the clinic. There is the story of Mr N who has lost his memory, but the agent who once kept him under surveillance for the government has also come to the clinic and provides him with detailed memories of his life. Turnu Magurele remembers only a past that was denied him so never happened; a desire to emigrate and live in America. And there is a long distance runner who believes he lives in the 1970s and is obsessed with saving John Lennon from his assassin. Despite the contradictions of his constructed reality, he decides it is the outside world that has been subjected to an experiment and is living a delusion. Then there is Vayisha Syndrome, a condition named after a girl who cannot see the reality of her present. Vayisha is fated to only ever see the past in one eye and the future in the other. Blind Vayisha is taken from another story by Gospodinov which was adapted as a short animated film in 2016 by Theodore Ushev.
Gospodinov’s story also suggests the problems of textual construction in parallel to the reification of history. Gospodinov, for one, fears he too is losing his memory, and races to finish his narrative. The ‘fictionality’ of his story is highlighted throughout. Like Gospodinov, the author, who tells us in his Acknowledgements page that he spent ten months researching for this book in the New York Public Library, Gospodinov, the narrator, also frequents the same library for the purposes of writing his book. The past, we understand, is also a fiction that we read about, imagine and reconstruct in our heads. The physical replicas of the past are merely an adornment to memory, not the thing itself.
The book also foregrounds its own construction through the vagaries of Gospodinov’s memory and his relationship with Gaustine.
Gospodinov, far from being a reliable narrator, is himself subject to the vagaries of memory. He has difficulty remembering his own wife’s name, and then implausibly remembers she is Emma Bovary. And a friend whom he meets is called, we are told, K., like Kafka’s character in The Trial. In fact, his friend is actually called Kafka, he tells us, the name of the very author who was the subject of 1963 Liblice Conference which influenced the liberalisation of Czechoslovakian politics before the Soviet crackdown in 1968. And like Gospodinov’s real world author, Georgi Gospodinov, our narrator is born in 1968 in the back of a car during the Prague Spring.
And then there is his difficulty in distinguishing between himself and Gaustine. “I suspect,” he says, “that he was secretly swiping his patient’s stories so he could take shelter in them, to rest for a bit in someone else’s place and past.” Yet it is Gospodinov who obsessively repeats the stories of others.
It seems the stories and coincidences are too many for us not to wonder at their construction in Gospodinov’s mind. Which returns us to the issue of Gospodinov’s grasp of reality and his relation to Gaustine. Gospodinov struggles to maintain a separate identity to Gaustine and Gaustine makes several references to his own tenuous reality in relation to Gospodinov. His very name complicates the issue of his relationship to Gospodinov: ‘Gaustine’, short for Augustine, as in the Saint. In fact, Gospodinov tells us that Gaustine first appeared to him after a dream in which he sees a name on a leather book from the thirteenth century: Gaustine of Arles. It’s an interesting conflation, since Caesarius of Arles was an influential fifth century preacher and thinker who helped to preserve St Augustine’s sermons. However, he had a tendency to ‘improve’ Augustine, so the demarcation between the writing of one author and the other can sometimes be difficult. There is an implicit comparison to be made here, conflating one writer and another, as well as Gospodinov’s sense of identity and Gaustine’s, who shares an interest in the time shelter. There are little rabbit holes like this to dive into everywhere throughout the book, which highlights the tenuousness of the narrator’s memory and the presumption of accessing the past.
What begins as a story about the sad realities of dementia and an innovative approach to its treatment becomes a satirical representation of conservative movements and the Orwellian need that reality must bend to the dictates of ideology. It’s a book that looks backwards, but it also anticipates the power of a revivified past to once again become our present.