A distinctly European novel, the award-winning Time Shelter by Georgi Gospodinov combines philosophy and satire with a fascinating premise. Enigmatic therapist, Gaustine, opens a pioneering dementia clinic in Zurich, wherein each floor recreates a different decade, allowing patients to find peace and comfort in their own temporal sanctuary. As the business gains in reputation, even healthy clients begin flocking to this clinic of the past, desirous of escaping their dysfunctional present. In Gospodinov’s emblematic take on 20th century Europe, Gaustine’s experiment morphs into something dangerous as he notes ‘…when you have no future, you vote for the past.’
The story is related by an unnamed narrator, who has known Gaustine since their student days. He reveals that Gaustine always seemed out of kilter with the modern world. An eccentric loner, preoccupied with contemplation of the past and the nature of memory. After a few years of scant contact, they reconnect at Gaustine’s innovative new clinic in Zurich, an appropriately sedate city and notably a destination for those seeking euthanasia.
‘Zurich is a city for growing old…the luxury of boredom and sun on the hill for old bones.’
The perfect setting for a time shelter, offering solace for elderly crumbling souls.
Thus far, the clinic has concentrated on the 1960’s, a floor dedicated to man-made fibres, lairy wallpaper and pop art. An inevitable haze of tobacco smoke accompanies it ( everyone and their grandmother smoked in the 1960’s)
Our narrator is offered a job, as procurer of artefacts, sounds and aromas, as Gaustine seeks to expand his project to encompass other decades. He knows the 1940’s will prove to be problematic. What will he do about World War Two and potentially awakening the memory of fear? The man who knows everything and never admits anything to the contrary, has no idea.
The story is interspersed with case studies of patients under Gaustine’s care. The elderly man who hides behind the curtains like an ‘aged boy’ playing hide ‘n’ seek, except the other kids have all grown up and ‘noone is looking for you anymore.’
And the old lady who refuses to enter the bathroom, despite all attempts to provide era-appropriate toiletries and facilities. She is, it turns out, terrified of the shower, and only when Gaustine trawls through her family documents does he register the echoes of Auschwitz.
The clinic’s popularity leads to others popping up across the continent. A new kind of ‘forgetter’ shows up at the door.Those who are not suffering dementia but wish to escape into the ‘cave of the past.’ As the experiment careers out of control, the time shelter phenomenon becomes a continent wide issue. Medicine has become politics.
Gospodinov is Bulgarian and his portrayal of modern European history touches particularly on his home country. Nationalism, communism and the perils of nostalgia come under scrutiny. Interestingly, as the prospect of turning back time consumes Europe, the UK has no voice. After all, ‘Great Brexitania’ has already made its decision.
With a dexterous translation by Angela Rodel, this ambitious novel proves to be a stimulating and admirably distinctive read.
Time Shelter by Georgi Gospodinov is published by W&N and translated by Angela Rodel, 304 pages.