An unnamed narrator speaks about Gaustine, an old friend he first met at a literary seminar. Gaustine is a geriatric psychiatrist (among other things), and is so obsessed with the past that he comes up with a brilliant concept: he wishes to set up “clinics of the past” for senior citizens with memory issues like Alzheimer’s, where every room or floor of the clinic reproduces the decade they felt happiest, coziest, and most familiar with — down to the last detail. According to Gaustine, “For those who have lost their memories… the present is a foreign country, while the past is their homeland.” In keeping with this philosophy, flea markets are raided for Bakelite gramophones, photographs of famous actors, music and paraphernalia from popular bands of different periods, everything that speaks of different eras, down to old favourite cigarette brands.
Gaustine’s dream finally comes true in Switzerland, because “…here I could find people to buy my idea and invest money. There are enough people here ready to pay to die happy.” When the clinic is set up in Zurich, Gaustine asks the narrator (who is a full time writer) to assist him. His ambitions are grand. He wants, “…rooms of the past. Or a clinic of the past. Or a city…Are you in?” Over time, it’s not just patients who drop by at the clinic, but mentally present people too who feel nostalgic about the past. As for the patients, many never want to leave the clinic. Death, we learn, is not the monster—the real monster is old age, and the difficulties that come with it.
The patients are interesting characters as well — perhaps more interesting than the enigmatic Gaustine and the more pragmatic narrator. While some of their stories may make you weepy, there are others that make you laugh out loud. Take Mr N who is losing his memory and has no family (his friends abandoned him much earlier when he was blacklisted in his then socialist state). Doctors advised him to look at his intelligence dossier from socialist times, but that too has been erased. Finally, after much prodding, he recalls the socialist agent who had spied on him for years. The former agent is called, but he is initially reluctant—he fears Mr N is seeking revenge, but Mr N assures him he only wants to remember his life and “…the only person left who was close to his past is the agent.” Their bonding is heart-warming, their chats are hilarious, and this episode is a master class on how satire can be gentle and compassionate too.
A deep longing for the past dominates this book, but the narrator warns us that even nostalgia has its limits. It’s perhaps alright for individuals (though only to an extent), but what happens when countries try to go back to a past—a past not just conveniently tidied up but gilded to the hilt by hyper nationalist politicians: take Brexit, Russia’s attempt to get back to being the USSR, etc. The narrator, like the author of this book, is Bulgarian, and by god he remembers! The thought police have a special place in his heart: “It’s well known that our inept homegrown police of all eras have always shown unerring taste in poets and writers—they always manage to kill the most talented and leave the most mediocre.”
While this book is focused on Europe and the terrifying nationalism and Soviet-style socialism that came with and followed the Second World War, the warning is valid for every single country in the world. After all, this pitch for past glories is happening not just in parts of Europe, but in very many other countries as well, with propaganda amplified by armies on social media and mega disinformation campaigns. Offline, people are hired to participate in demonstrations/rallies. Nothing appears to be real.
Time Shelter is, perhaps, one of the most brilliant books of our time. I say book and not novel, because while there is a solid concept and story, a large part of the book (mainly the narrator’s thoughts) reads like a series of essays. Engaging and witty essays that provoke you to think, not yawn-inducing ones. Not surprisingly, it won the International Booker Prize in 2023.
By Georgi Gospodinov
pp. 297, Rs 699