‘Time Shelter’ the first Bulgarian novel to win International Booker Prize

The exploration of time as a theme continues from last year's International Booker Prize winner
Photo: The Booker Prizes

Time Shelter, written by Georgi Gospodinov and translated from the Bulgarian by Angela Rodel, was awarded the International Booker Prize 2023 in a ceremony held in London on May 24. 

The novel follows a narrator whose job it is to collect the "flotsam and jetsam of the past", which includes everything from afternoon sunlight and scents to 1940s shirt buttons and 1960s furniture. He serves as assistant to Gaustine, who has opened a clinic for Alzheimer's patients in Zurich that transports them to a past time and their memories. Over time, this "time shelter" draws people to try to escape more and more from their present day reality, until it becomes a mission to stop time itself. 

"Our winner, Time Shelter, is a brilliant novel, full of irony and melancholy. It is a profound work that deals with a very contemporary question: What happens to us when our memories disappear? Georgi Gospodinov succeeds marvellously in dealing with both individual and collective destinies and it is this complex balance between the intimate and the universal that convinced and touched us", said author Leïla Slimani, Chair of the International Booker Prize 2023 judges. 

In her speech she thanked her fellow judges on this year's panel, New Yorker critic Parul Sehgal, novelist Tan Twan Eng, Financial Times Literary Editor Frederick Studemann, and translator and academic Uilleam Blacker, who lectures in Russian and Eastern European culture at UCL. 

"In scenes that are burlesque as well as heartbreaking, he questions the way in which our memory is the cement of our identity and our intimate narrative" Slimani continues, "[b]ut it is also a great novel about Europe, a continent in need of a future, where the past is reinvented, and nostalgia is a poison. It offers us a perspective on the destiny of countries like Bulgaria, which have found themselves at the heart of the ideological conflict between the West and the communist world. The translator, Angela Rodel, has succeeded brilliantly in rendering this style and language, rich in references and deeply free."

Born in Yambol, Bulgaria, Georgi Gospodinov is "the most translated and internationally awarded Bulgarian writer to emerge after the fall of communism". He has written novels, poems, essays, screenplays and graphic novels, with his novels having been shortlisted for the PEN Literary Award for Translation, the Premio Gregor von Rezzori, the Bruecke Berlin Preis, and the Haus der Kulturen der Welt Literaturpreis. He won the 2016 Jan Michalski Prize for Literature and the 2019 Angelus Literature Central Europe Prize, among others, and was described by La Repubblica as "a Proust from the East".

Time Shelter is his third novel to be published in English. 

"My urge to write this book came from the sense that something had gone awry in the clockworks of time", the author said upon winning the International Booker Prize. 

"After 2016 we seemed to be living in another world and another time. The world's disintegration with the encroachment of populism and playing the card of the 'great past' in the US and in Europe provoked me. Brexit was the other trigger."

For translator Angela Rodel, the project of translating the book began before Gospodinov had even finished writing it. The success of his previous novel, The Physics of Sorrow, had urged agents, colleagues and others from the literary world to grow impatient for his next work-in-progress, and so Rodel produced a 50-page excerpt of the novel before it was eventually completed in the Bulgarian.  

Originally from Minnesota, USA, Angela Rodel is a literary translator, musician and actor currently based in Bulgaria. She holds degrees from Yale and UCLA, and has received NEA and PEN translation grants. Her work has appeared in McSweeney's, Little Star, Ploughshares, Granta.org, Two Lines, and Words Without Borders, among others.

Rodel's translation of Gospodinov's The Physics of Sorrow won the National Book Center's 2015 Peroto Prize for best translation from Bulgarian and the 2016 AATSEEL Prize for Best Book of Literary Translation; it was nominated for the three most prestigious translation awards in the US: finalist for the 2016 PEN Translation Prize, the 2016 National Translation Award from the American Literary Translators Association, and Three Percent's Best Translated Book Award for 2016.

"Our close collaboration has always been delightful and intellectually inspiring; despite his rather intimidating erudition, Georgi is also unusually empathetic and generous with his time and knowledge. Georgi cut his writerly teeth as a poet, so he is very interested in the craft of translation and loves to get into the weeds of rhythm and sound", Rodel said. 

The author and translator will share the GBP 50,000 award for the 2023 InternationalBooker Prize—the most coveted recognition for "the finest single work of fiction from around the world which has been translated into English and published in the UK and Ireland." 

The themes of this year's winner overlap with those of the 2022 award recipient—Geetanjali Shree's Tomb of Sand, translated from the Hindi by Daisy Rockwell, which explores the textures of time as they were stored in the memories of Maa, a woman who survived the 1947 Partition of India and saw three generations of her family in transition. 

Tomb of Sand was the first Hindi novel to win the International Booker prize.