This year’s International Booker Prize winner is a strangely beguiling work in the tradition of Calvino and Borges, if much less esoteric. Our narrator is a novelist struggling to write meaningfully about memory. Along the way he meets Gaustine, a flaneur doctor-philosopher who decides to set up the clinic of the past, a place that his patients with Alzheimer’s can visit comfortably.
Enchanted by this project, our narrator follows Gaustine’s work obsessively across time and space, getting entangled in all sorts of historical events as the two men become inextricable. Highly praised for its political commentary, what actually stood out to me most were the moments when the narrator reflects on his intimate feelings about life and memory. Yes, the novel’s meditations on nostalgia and its weaponization are timely and well executed. However, the beginning of the third act becomes muddy when the narration focuses on a Brexit-like referendum about which section of the past to permanently return to.
I thought the book had lost me, but I am glad I stuck with it, as the subsequent pages tied everything together into a satisfying, quite moving, resolution. Overall, a fascinating and playful literary novel, full of interesting ideas its readers can chew on while trying to picture this impossible clinic of the past. A worthy winner, indeed.