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My Europe: The coronavirus time machine

The COVID-19 pandemic has confined us to a world of yesterday, one full of nostalgia. But we must remember that the past is never innocent, says Bulgarian writer Georgi Gospodinov. It also harbors political dangers.

In the early days, we used to say that after this pandemic we could never go back to the way things were. And yet, we've abruptly gone back to that world, in the way people return to places they have left. The way Swiss mercenaries, far from home, were once struck down by a mysterious ailment known as nostalgia. 

That sickness was first described by Johannes Hofer, a Swiss medical student at the University of Basel in 1688, with clear physiological symptoms: fainting, high fever and stomach disorders, which in some extreme cases could even lead to death. Early this year, we first heard about the symptoms of those infected with the novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, which included a dry cough, fever, sore throat and difficulty breathing. A while later, a loss of taste or smell was added to the list. But there is another, as yet unidentified symptom which I believe to be part of the coronavirus profile: a sharp nostalgia for the world of yesterday.

Bulgarien Georgi Gospodinov

Georgi Gospodinov is Bulgaria's most translated contemporary author

That's not just a metaphor, or a nod to Stefan Zweig's memoir. It also means, literally, the world of the day before today, the world of just a few weeks or months ago. We're used to feeling nostalgic for something that existed long ago, for childhood events and places. I even believe a person can feel a real nostalgia for things that have never happened — and sometimes, that longing can be even stronger. But even that has been changed by this new virus.

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Isolated in space and time

The paradox is that the world we miss is still all around us. Looking through the window at the empty street and the small cafe on the corner, I feel an acute nostalgia and even a certain pain — and indeed pain is part of nostalgia, in the etymological sense, with the Greek word for pain, "algos," contained in the word itself. 

I feel pain and nostalgia (forgive the tautology) for a place I used to visit just a month ago. And — this is also important — for a place I have not left. It's still there, just before my eyes. This is something different, something new. Our world hasn't vanished; it's here, right in front of us. And yet we feel a painful absence, a painful lack of our world, just as the lungs of a COVID-19 patient feel the lack of oxygen.

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Slowly, we are beginning to understand that isolation doesn't just exist in space, but also in time. We haven't just left behind the world's space, but also the world's time. Our human bodies have been forced to live in a confined present, to live without the wide horizon of near-future plans. In a normal world, people also live in that near future, making plans and appointments, excited about what is yet to come. All of this has suddenly come to an end, all our future destinations have been eliminated. Our future — canceled.

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Unlimited access to the past

Now what? All that's left for us are the destinations of the past. Humans aren't made to live only with the reality of the present moment. When our bodies are limited to a narrow range of movement, then our internal self — our thoughts, our desires, our fears — begin to get restless. 

Right now, our future is impossible. But we have unlimited access to the past — our past, in particular. And so what do we do in times like these? We take out the family albums and leaf through old photos. As The Kinks used to sing, "People take pictures of each other/just to prove that they really existed." With good reason: We have to reassure ourselves that this world once existed, and that we existed in it.

Our TVs are showing old movies and series — it's not as if we'll be seeing new stories any time soon. Sports broadcasters are re-airing the greatest World Cup finals. I rewatched the 1978 match between Argentina and the Netherlands, and suddenly I was 10 years old again. It was the first soccer game I watched with my father, and I still remember the feeling of being included among the grownups. I remember trying to get angrier than them at how unfairly Argentina was playing, banging my small fist on the table. Once again, we were on the losing side — not surprising, considering my Bulgarian past. 

Watching these old matches again is more than just a pastime. They bring back memories of forgotten experiences, lost smells and old faces. Suddenly, the past begins to grow — time doesn't leave empty spaces. The past is probably something like a liquid or a gas. That's why it's sometimes so volatile, and why it moves so smoothly and fills everything up.

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The past is never innocent

As it turns out, this virus is a time machine. But we shouldn't forget that the past is never innocent — at any time, a political Frankenstein could emerge promising us a new world made up of our nostalgia for yesterday, vowing to make us happy once again. Ideologies once looked to the future for legitimacy; now, more and more, they are relying on the past. It's the easiest path to legitimacy, like signing a blank check.

It's good to remember and talk about the past, full of stories and people. But if we try to live in the past, or force other people to live there, it becomes empty and ghostly. We will have to look for shelter in other places in time.

Besides, I expect we'll soon see a second wave of nostalgia — for those months in quarantine when we were alone, and yet together.

Georgi Gospodinov, born in 1968, is Bulgaria's most translated contemporary author. His novels Natural Novel and The Physics of Sorrow, along with his books of poetry and plays, are available in 25 languages. His works have been recognized with the Angelus Central European Literature Award in 2019 and the Jan Michalski Prize for Literature in 2016. He is currently a fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study in Berlin.

Text translated by Bilyana Radoslavova