TIME SHELTER

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The unnamed narrator of Bulgarian author Gospodinov’s third novel translated into English has stumbled into the orbit of Gaustine, who’s opened a facility in Zurich for people with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia—“those who already are living solely in the present of their past,” as he puts it. Memory care is a legitimate treatment for such patients, but Gospodinov’s digressive, philosophical novel is less a work of realist literature than an allegory about the perils of looking backward and attempting to make Switzerland (or Sweden or Germany…) great again. As the popularity of the clinic expands—with different floors dedicated to different decades of the 20th century—the narrator alternates between sketches of various patients and ruminations about modern European history (particularly that of his native Bulgaria) and how time is treated by authors like Thomas Mann, W.H. Auden, and Homer. Eventually, the novel expands into a kind of dark satire of nostalgia and patriotism as more clinics emerge and various European countries hold referendums to decide which point in time it wishes to live in. (France picks the 1980s; Switzerland, forever neutral, votes to live in the day of the referendum.) But, of course, attempting to live in the past doesn’t mean you can stay there. Though the story at times meanders, translator Rodel keeps the narrator’s wry voice consistent. And in its brisker latter chapters, the story achieves a pleasurably Borges-ian strangeness while sending a warning signal about how memory can be glitch-y and dangerous. As Gaustine puts it: “The more a society forgets, the more someone produces, sells, and fills the freed-up niches with ersatz-memory.”

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