Prestigious award for ‘Time Shelter’, hailed as striking ‘a complex balance between the intimate and the universal’, is seen as giving a major boost to the global visibility of Bulgaria’s literary scene.
Bulgarian writer Georgi Gospodinov and his US-born translator Angela Rodel won the International Booker Prize for the novel Time Shelter during a ceremony in London on Tuesday.
“This novel is very personal and political at the same time,” said Gospodinov in his acceptance speech, while joking that he had expected these words to belong to an “unspoken speech for unreceived awards”.
“In a time of war, writers must tend to tell their stories on the side of the one under attack, the one fighting for their home, for their and our children,” he added.
Rodel, who translated the novel into English, thanked the jury for “mining the precious pockets of world literature and translation and finding us worthy of excavation”.
The novel, in which the vague storyline gravitates around the invention of a “time clinic” as a treatment for Alzheimer’s that allows people literally to go back in time, was originally published in Bulgarian in March 2020, during the first lockdown, when bookstores were closed.
In his speech, Gospodinov thanked his local publishers from Janet 45 for their bravery in releasing the book in such circumstances.
“Georgi Gospodinov succeeds marvellously in dealing with both individual and collective destinies and it is this complex balance between the intimate and the universal that convinced and touched us,” stated Leïla Slimani, Chair of Judges for the International Booker Prize 2023.
Gospodinov was born in 1968 in the town of Yambol. Time Shelter is his third novel after Natural Novel in 1999 and Physics of Sorrow in 2012. He has also written volumes of poetry, short stories and essays in-between.
He is a previous recipient of the Strega European Prize, the Angelus Award and the Jan Michalski Prize for Literature. His short story “The Blind Vaysha” was adapted by Canada-based Bulgarian director Theodore Ushev and was Oscar-nominated for a best animated short in 2017.
Rodela was born in 1974 in Minnesota, in the US, and after developing an avid interest in Bulgarian folklore music, started learning the language and later translated numerous local writers and poets, including Angel Igov, Georgi Tenev, Milen Ruskov, Ivaylo Petrov, Virginia Zakharieva, Zachary Karabashliev, among others. She has recently worked on an upcoming translation of the prose work of Georgi Markov, the Bulgarian dissident assassinated in London in 1978.
This is the first Bulgarian book nominated for the award and also the first to win – an unprecedented success, creating more visibility for the local literary scene. The victory is also seen in the context of May 24 – the day on which Bulgaria commemorates the Bulgarian alphabet and Slavonic literature.
On local social media, the award brought tongue-in-cheek comparisons to Bulgaria’s breakthrough in the 1994 World Cup football tournament in the US in terms of rare global recognition.
“Tonight, Bulgarians watched the Booker Prize the way most people watch football – and I don’t know if there are many people who could boast that about literature”, tweeted the writer and journalist Joanna Elmy.
“Gospodinov’s win is, I hope, only the beginning of a recognition by the literary and cultural Western establishment — a recognition that needn’t always be a pedestal, but just an open door, an open mind, the belief that, yes, ‘small’ nations can matter tremendously,” she added.
Time Shelter is published in the UK by W&N.