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May 19, 2022

From communism to the Brexit referendum and conflict in Europe, this funny yet frightening Bulgarian novel explores the weaponisation of nostalgia

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”.

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