Life behind the iron curtain was an education in a certain kind of humour: dark, unsentimental and absurd. It understood that jokes had become shortcuts to the truth – apart from the bonus of laughter, they turned the wooden language of the regime against itself in ways that sincerity could not. My favourite joke from my time in 1980s Romania was: “Under communism, the future is always certain; it’s the past that keeps changing.” From the vantage point of 2022, it’s clear that this wasn’t just true of communism, and that the joke, if we can still bear to laugh at it, is also on us.
Time Shelter is Bulgarian writer Georgi Gospodinov’s third novel, and for all its focus on the apparently bygone, it could not be more timely. A mysterious therapist, Gaustine, founds a clinic that treats patients with Alzheimer’s by recreating the pasts in which they felt most secure. The “past-clinic” begins with different rooms and floors, decorated with a completist’s precision and an obsessive’s eye for detail: particular cigarette brands, lampshades, wallpaper, archive magazines … Decade by decade, therapeutic time-shelters allow patients to inhabit their temporal “safe spaces”.
The clinic is not just a place where Gaustine treats patients; it is also the perfect conceit for Gospodinov’s narrator to explore the 20th century in Europe through the vanishing points of traumatised or broken individuals. It’s as if Oliver Sacks and WG Sebald had collaborated on a Europe-wide chain of treatment centres. A former secret policeman arrives with his former quarry, who now has dementia. The police officer has become his prosthetic memory, restoring moments of happiness to the man he once persecuted and informed on. In one of the book’s many dark jokes, a Romanian patient finds solace in remembering not what he experienced but what he fantasised about: a life in the US. Nostalgia is not about what you had, but a memory of what you wanted: a backdated cheque from a nonexistent bank that somehow always pays out.
Some patients have memories that are better left untapped: in one harrowing case, Gaustine treats a woman who cannot bear to be near showers. He discovers that she is a Holocaust survivor, prompting him to reflect that memory is not a good in itself, and that the right kind of forgetting is also therapeutically necessary. Gaustine writes that the more past there is, the less memory we have. Differentiating the past from memory becomes important later in the novel, when Gaustine’s idea is hijacked – as it was always going to be – by politicians.
The clinic is so successful that clients with no ailments gravitate towards it. Everyone wants a piece of the past. A radio station plays entire days from specific decades. Gaustine imagines towns and cities fixed in particular eras; soon, whole countries want to emulate his idea. Across Europe, political parties promote different decades in their national histories. Referendums are fought on what particular past a country’s future will look like. It’s funny and absurd, but it’s also frightening, because even as Gospodinov plays with the idea as fiction, the reader begins to recognise something rather closer to home. Time Shelter was written between the Brexit referendum and the Russian invasion of Ukraine, both of which represent, in their own ways, the weaponisation of nostalgia and the selection of particular eras in the time clinic of the not-so-new world order.
The Brexit referendum is invoked here as a prototype (our politicians would say “world-leading”) for the fictional referendums that break out across Europe. In the film that I hope will be made of this novel, I imagine crowd scenes and political rallies with people chanting slogans like, “What do we want? Then! When do we want it? Now!” True to form, Gospodinov finds humour in the bleakness, as Europe proves, yet again, that knowing history is no bar to repeating it. He has fun with national stereotypes: “If Scandinavia couldn’t decide which of its happy periods to choose, Romania was also racked by doubt, but for opposite reasons.”
This could have been an intellectual game with little emotional investment, but Gospodinov is a writer of great warmth
This novel could have been a clever, high-concept intellectual game with little by way of emotional investment, but Gospodinov is a writer of great warmth as well as skill. His narrator bears close relation to Gospodinov himself: a Bulgarian, born in 1968, for whom the end of communism remains, as it remains in a ghostly way in this novel, a meeting point of past and present. His affection for that period is sincere but also without illusion. He can draw out fully dimensional characters from the broken details of their fractured memories. His transitions – between humour and sadness, absurd situationism and reverberating tragedy, pathos and ironic observation – are never obtrusive. Thanks to the skill and delicacy of Angela Rodel’s translation, these qualities are in abundant display for the anglophone reader.
The novel’s title – Time Shelter – is a neologism in Bulgarian as it is in English, a grafting from the noun “bomb shelter”. It’s well found in its ambiguity: sheltering from time, and sheltering within time. Both are attractive but impossible. Nostalgia used to feel like a source of harmless escape, and occasional sustenance. It is starting to seem like a fossil fuel, foreshortening our future as it burns.
• Patrick McGuinness’s Throw Me to the Wolves is published by Vintage. Time Shelter by Georgi Gospodinov, translated by Angela Roden, is published by Weidenfeld and Nicholson (£16.99). To support the Guardian and the Observer buy a copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply