The Bulgarian writer opens up about the political fears that informed his prize-winner Time Shelter, about ‘a Pandora’s box of weaponised nostalgia’ The idea for a novel involving a clinic of the past, where people with dementia are healed by immersion in the sights, sounds and smells of their youth, had been in Georgi Gospodinov’s head for more than a decade when 2016 rolled up. Then there was Brexit, which changed the landscape of a European Union to which his homeland, Bulgaria, had belonged since 2007. Then came Donald Trump. Gospodinov and his wife watched the US election results from a hotel room in Vienna and at 4am, when the winner was declared, his wife burst into tears. “She was crying for our daughter. We didn’t want this for her, and there was a sense of hopelessness, helplessness,†he says. His whimsical story about a treatment for what he’d identified as a pandemic affecting ageing populations curdled into a dystopia. Time Shelter, which this week won the International Booker prize in a translation by Angela Rodel, is an almost spookily timely novel. It was published on the day that Bulgaria was shut down by a more urgent pandemic, Covid. Then came the threat to Europe of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. “What I thought would happen tomorrow started happening right now, and the problem with dystopian novels in dystopian times is that they become documentaries,†he says with a laugh. Time Shelter is Gospodinov’s third novel involving the character of Gaustine, a time-travelling flaneur, whose prescription of past memories as relief for the unhappiness of Alzheimer’s disease opens a Pandora’s box of weaponised nostalgia. “The past is not just that which happened to you. Sometimes it is that which you just imagined,†writes his narrator. Literature is to blame for everything, he and Gaustine decide – and in the case of Brexit it’s the fault of Robinson Crusoe: “I’ll be fine on my own, Robinson declares, God is with me. We’ll be fine on our own, his descendants say, God save the queen (but even without her we’ll be fine).†Before long, every European nation is copying “Great Brexitaniaâ€, with referendums to decide to which eras they want to return. Sweden chooses the 1970s, the expansionist decade of Abba and Ikea; most of central Europe opts for the hopefulness of the late 1980s, when regime change was in the air; Bulgaria, split between late socialism and a semi-mythical age of heroes, settles for a mashup in which “men in breeches lay down next to women with shellacked hairdosâ€. Gospodinov, who is also a poet, essayist, opera librettist and former newspaper columnist, put together his new world order through punctilious research into voter demographics. People remember generationally, based on a complex blend of culture and politics, he points out. “But political fears are always deeply personal as well. When the war broke out on 24 February last year, all of a sudden all my childhood fears came roaring back.†Anti-nuclear drills were a regular part of his childhood, so when the spectre of nuclear strikes was raised in Ukraine, his immediate thought was: “What do I tell my daughter? I don’t want her to live with fear.†Born in 1968 in Yambol, a small city near the Turkish border, Gospodinov spent his early childhood in his grandparents’ village while his father and mother built careers in town as a vet and a lawyer. Abandonment was a constant fear, followed – after they took him and his younger brother to live with them in a basement flat – by loneliness. “We can talk about socialism in terms of various kinds of deficits – not only of goods and physical things, but of intimate conversations and truth,†he says. Still, his parents had a large and eclectic library, where he could find out the things his school and his family couldn’t teach him. He traces his storytelling vocation back to making up people to fit all the disembodied legs he saw walking past the basement windows. One of the pleasures of being published in the UK for the first time, he says, was meeting up with the widow of dissident Bulgarian writer Georgi Markov. After defecting to the west Markov was working for the BBC in London when he died in 1978 after being stabbed in the leg on Waterloo Bridge with a poisoned umbrella, claiming an attack by Bulgarian secret agents. “It was very moving. She said Georgi would have been delighted to see a Bulgarian book doing so well.†Discover new books with our expert reviews, author interviews and top 10s. Literary delights delivered direct you Are there any traces of that rogue state in today’s Bulgaria? “No, we’re European now: the danger is more from the far right,†he says. On the other hand, the novel is predicated on a fear that Europe itself has no future. “It’s the feeling that I think all of us had in the last maybe 10 years: this sense of a deficit of the future. It’s like standing in an airport seeing all the flights come up cancelled, cancelled, cancelled.†Does he think Bulgaria itself will remain in the EU? “It’s teetering on the edge,†he says, “but the drive to belong, of countries which for so long felt themselves to be on the periphery, remains strong.†Sentimental nationalism is also strong, however, and the next of the novel’s premonitions set to come true involves a comic set piece staged around a huge national flag. At this very moment, he says, Bulgaria is preparing to make a bid for a Guinness World Record by hoisting the biggest flag on the tallest flagpole in the world. Time Shelter by Georgi Gospodinov, translated by Angela Rodel, is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson (£9.99). 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