Some months ago, while reading a few popular science books, I became enamoured with the concept of time. In the present context, time is considered the fourth dimension that humans have access to. Though we experience time, we cannot manipulate it. For us, time is always a unidirectional entity, unlike the other three dimensions. We cannot go back in time. It takes our lives from existence to extinction. But there are entities that may have the capacity to curve time and exploit the possibilities of a time warp. There are particles, like photons, that never experience time.
Time Shelter, the International Booker winner of 2023 and a Bulgarian novel written by Georgi Gospodinov, deals with the human psychology that craves the certainty of the past and aspires to break the uni-directional behaviour of time. The future is inevitable, ambiguous, and uncertain, and our march towards it is frightening. But the past is familiar and comforting, and our nostalgia associated with the past invites us towards it. Time Shelter explores this craving for the past and the unescapable consequences when we try to modify the present in an attempt to return to the past.
A psychiatrist named Gaustine establishes a clinic for Alzheimer's patients in Zurich, Switzerland, in which, on each floor, a decade from the past is painstakingly replicated. It is meant to maintain the patients' connection with the past by triggering their memories and making them more open to the diagnosis. The narrator, who remains unnamed, helps Gaustine collect past artefacts. The clinic becomes a resounding success when even non-patients flock to re-experience their past. Soon the project goes out of their hands, and the whole of Europe decides to hold a referendum in each country to decide which decade in the past they want to live in.
Time Shelter, very similar to bomb shelters, something familiar for European nations ravaged by two World Wars, is an apt title for a novel about a generation that is suspicious of the future and needs to be sheltered from its onslaught. The extension of clinics that are meant to shelter the patients who are ravaged by the past into towns and cities and finally into nations, like the recent pandemic situation, is a depiction of the recent surges in nationalist narratives across Europe.
The novel is narrated in first person by an unnamed narrator, though the initials G.G. are used towards the end. The narrator is in the process of writing a novel and has created the character Gaustine and his time clinic. But then they meet in real life, and the narrator becomes the collector of the clinic. As the narration progresses, the identities of the main characters become more and more unclear. We are never sure of the extent to which the narrator describes reality and the figments of his imagination.
The novel uses an ambiguous structure. It doesn't have a conventional plot progression or buildup. In many places, it uses the narrative style of autobiographies, travelogues, and non-fictional books, even when the plot migrates to a dystopian theme towards its end. This style added a chillingly realistic element, along with an underlying sense of humour, to the reading experience. At several places, I could sense a touch of Milan Kundera.
Time Shelter is an important novel of our time that explores themes like the connection or disconnection between past and memories, about how history and our place in it define our present, and about how reclaiming our past is as meaningless an exercise as knowing our future.