Interview. We interviewed the Bulgarian writer Georgi Gospodinov about the situation of the war in Ukraine. His book ‘Time Shelter’ deals with the violence of the past affecting the future.

Georgi Gospodinov: Living through an invasion from the past

Georgi Gospodinov, whom il manifesto also interviewed back in 2013, was born in Jambol on January 7, 1968. He is the most widely translated and internationally acclaimed Bulgarian writer.

In Italy, the Voland publishing house has put out his debut, Natural Novel, three collections of short stories – E Altre Storie (And Other Stories), E tutto divenne luna (And Everything Became Moon) and Tutti i nostri corpi (All Our Bodies), the latter two awarded by the Accademia del Ceppo as the literature collections in the world in 2021; and two novels, The Physics of Sorrow and Time Shelter, the latter having won the European Strega Prize in October.

With the exception of the first novel, they have all been translated to Italian by Giuseppe Dell’Agata – whom we thank for the help he gave us for this interview – who is now editing an anthology of his poems.

We spoke with Gospodinov, who is in Italy from March 31 to April 4, and asked him some questions about the cultural and material “wounds” of the war in Ukraine.

Time is a recurring theme in your novels and short stories. What did you think about the Russian invasion of Ukraine? The novel Time Shelter ends in 2029 with the troops massed again at the borders, like on the eve of World War II, in a sort of reenactment of those events – and then a bullet fired by accident makes the armies move against each other. Are we faced with an invasion from the past?

That’s exactly what I had in mind. I imagined the army of the past, the phantom army of the past, massed at a border, theoretically just for a reconstruction, and then, because of a bullet fired by accident, the tanks move in, the machine guns start firing… When you get an army massed somewhere, at some point one always find a pretext to start a war. Like with Chekhov’s gun at the beginning of the play. With my novel Time Shelter as a whole, I wanted to show that no past is innocent. To show that the past only apparently resembles a comfortable refuge, but actually isn’t one. Putin started this war in the name of a past that no longer exists. And no war for the past can be won. And must not be won.

War is back in the spotlight in Europe, with the litany of battles, sieges, civilian victims, refugees. Yet those crimes have never actually left us in these recent times, but the current narrative has made the idea prevalent that they were taking place in a distant elsewhere – or as close as in the Balkans, but hidden away. In this way, we could be the aggressors and it didn’t need to weigh on our consciences…

Yes, we are guilty of not reacting as strongly to what was happening further away from us, in Syria and elsewhere. There was a reaction, but not as unified and strong as today. But that doesn’t mean we don’t need to have a tough reaction now. Quite the contrary. Very few events since World War II can be compared to Putin’s aggression against Ukraine. This is something radically different. Here we are faced with an aggression in someone else’s territory, absolutely unprovoked, with fire against civilians, with a humanitarian tragedy, something that has already lasted for a month… I don’t see anything like it in Europe in the last half century. And I have never seen all European countries so united.

The fault line along which the USSR collapsed, which basically imploded, has certainly been nationalism, which is now being relaunched by Putin in its “Greater Russia” form. The great Yugoslav writer Danilo Kis says nationalism is a form of madness. But what is its origin, and how does this pathology work, if every time it still manages to draw people in and sow death and destruction?

Nationalism always comes when you don’t know who you are, when you are worried and confused and tomorrow’s world seems worse to you than today’s world. Then the nationalists come to save you, and say, “You’re unhappy, aren’t you? Life and the world have treated you unfairly. And remember how much better it used to be? You were young and part of a great empire. And now….” So, the world is explained quickly and in simple terms, a refuge is offered in the form of the great past, and the person, desperate and without a clear identity, surrenders. Then an enemy must be found. For Soviet Russia, that was never a problem: the enemy was always the West. This is how the old propaganda of the past, which I still remember from when I was a child, returns once again, weaponized, only a little dusty – and that’s it.

My novel Time Shelter tells the story that in a similar situation of deficit regarding the future, all European countries organize a referendum on the past. In reality, Putin has made such a referendum of his own: he wanted Europe to go back to before 1997, to before the expansion of NATO. And for Russia to go back even further and correct the past and Lenin’s so-called error about Ukraine. It’s clear that this is an obsession for every dictator. But even the dumbest movies have taught us that any attempt to fix the past leads to catastrophes when it comes to the present. The past is not a tank that you can steer; the past simply runs you over.

Putin says he wants to defend Russia – but by bombing Ukrainian cities and culture, he seems to have been overcome by fratricidal, if not parricidal impulses, given the deep, family-like bond between the two. Are we witnessing Russia’s suicide?

Yes. Without fully realizing it, he has actually attacked Russia itself. Whichever way the war ends, Russia has already lost it, economically and symbolically. It has lost the memory that will remain from this war. It will not be able to tell the story, no matter how much propaganda it may put out, like it managed to tell its own story as both victim and victor in World War II. This memory, and these stories, will now be very different. In his blindness, Putin is portraying himself very clearly as embodying that line we know from Gogol’s Taras Bulba: “I gave you life, I will take it.” Only he didn’t give it life. And he can’t kill it, he will only hurt it badly, and Russia will continue to bleed, literally and symbolically, for decades after this war.

What is your experience of the value of a city like Odessa for the world, the city of Babel’s stories, with its culture, literature and history, now that it is once again on the war front?

I was once in Odessa back in 1990. Beautiful and poor, it was in a moment of serious crisis, derelict and full of cats, that’s how I remember it. And one more thing I can’t forget: the famous stairs from Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin: I spent almost an hour there, enraptured, listening to an opera singer who was singing to collect some money. Then they told me she was one of the soloists of the Odessa opera. It’s a city about which Pushkin says that everything smells like Europe, people speak French, and there are cultural magazines in several languages. By bombing Odessa, Putin will be bombing not just a city, but the world of yesterday, with all its implications of memory and culture. He cannot even grasp this fact.

Eastern Europe remains a big question mark. Not only are the phenomena of real militant historical revisionism returning (with extreme right-wing groups getting stronger; in Ukraine, the Nazi collaborator Bandera is being celebrated as a national hero, while some Israeli newspapers are recalling his responsibility in the pogroms of Lviv and the massacres of Odessa and Babi Yar, also immortalized in Evtushenko’s poem). But also against the European Union itself: many countries are starting to dispute the contents of democracy and the rule of law by adopting the idea and the principles of “illiberal democracy” (something dear to Putin).

When they mention Babi Yar, I hope that the Israeli newspapers also write about the missile attacks that took place there in the first days of the aggression. I will say it clearly: no propaganda, no “denazification” as an alibi, can justify the killing of women and children, pregnant women, nor the more than three million refugees who have abandoned their homes.

How is the EU reacting? Better than we expected. All those who thought the EU was a disintegrating community are now taking an absolutely unified position. You can see the help that individuals and NGOs are offering to the millions of refugees. This is also happening in Poland and Hungary, whose governments are part of that “illiberal democracy” you were talking about. Bulgaria is still not sufficiently active, but ordinary citizens are reacting in a very humane way and are taking in refugees, non-governmental organizations are also active, and even the most clumsy state institutions are getting involved. Unfortunately, the pro-Putin propaganda is very strong in our country and it has many supporters.

We are all now within the narrative of the weapons – they are the ones writing it. What happens to memory in this condition of war, of being enlisted, what is the role of those who are trying every day to tell the story of the world in its profundity?

Sometimes I feel like telling what I’m seeing and hearing as stories, and sometimes I just feel like shutting up and crying. And no matter what, it still needs to be told. Everything must be told. It’s painful, because even if you’re just witnessing, more like an indirect witness, you’re still telling it through your own body and the bodies of your loved ones. There is nothing to stand up to the propaganda machine except one’s frail personal story. No propaganda can be stronger than a child running away from war with a phone number written on their hand in case they need to be found.

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