10 Need-to-Know Books by Olga Tokarczuk
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by Olga Tokarczuk, Olga Tokarczuk, photo: Sophie Bassouls / Getty Images, center, olga_tokarczuk_fot_sophie_bassouls_gettyimages-1180975517-2.jpg
On 10th December 2019, Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, becoming the prestigious international honour’s fifth Polish-language laureate. Book lovers are rejoicing, snatching up Tokarczuk’s books off bookstore shelves like hotcakes, while publishers and literary agents rub their hands in anticipation of a jackpot. Culture.pl’s Igor Belov presents his take on 10 of Olga Tokarczuk’s most famous books.
The Journey of the Book-People (1993)
Critics would subsequently call the future Nobel Prize winner’s debut novel ‘a gold mine of leitmotifs’ that Olga Tokarczuk would continue to cultivate as her body of work grew. The novel takes place at the end of the 17th century. A carriage is travelling all around France with some very colourful companions: The Marquis (a dabbler in alchemy and the esoteric), Mademoiselle Veronica the Parisian courtesan, and a mute boy called Gauche accompanied by his faithful yellow dog. These are the envoys of a secret society known as the Book-People, and their goal is to hunt down a mysterious book that God himself had once given Adam, having written in it ‘his perfection, his beginningless-ness and his endlessness’. The book is hidden in a remote mountain pass in the Pyrenees and many adventures await the protagonists on their journey. The composition of the expedition party is largely random – what unites these people, spontaneous romantics and seekers, is perhaps their subconscious desire to go beyond the limits of their own selves.
Olga Tokarczuk Wins Nobel Prize for Literature
The Journey of the Book-People is a fascinating story, balancing on the line between philosophical parable and fairy tale. Tokarczuk formulated her creative credo around this very idea: ‘For me, writing books is telling yourself stories in a language born between sleep and waking.’ As in most tales, the plot of The Journey of the Book-People is a journey as a means to master reality: ‘All journeys begin the same way: you could say that the traveller is choking on their own space.’ Here one finds the theme of travel as a metaphor for life – a thought Tokarczuk would later expand upon in her well-known novel, Flights.
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The shaky chaos of human existence on which lies the otherworldly glow of otherness is the pervasive theme of Olga Tokarczuk’s second novel E.E. Readers of this book are transported to Wrócław, which, during the events described, bore the former name of Breslau. It is the year 1908 – a sort of frontier time in the history of the human condition: suffragettes protest discrimination against women, the sweet haze of decadence floats around artist salons, Dr. Freud plunges patients and readers into pools of the subconscious and underlying sexuality. The novel’s main character is the young Erna Eltzner, the daughter of a German industrialist and a Polish woman. One day, she swoons upon seeing an unknown man in her parents’ kitchen, who neither her family nor the household servants seemed to have noticed, as if he is invisible to them. After coming to, the girl tells everything to her mother, who believes that her daughter has seen a ghost bearing a striking resemblance to Erna’s grandfather, who died before she was born. The parents of the girl, with her newly acquired psychic abilities, hold a séance in their home, and like moths to a flame, a varied assortment of people fly into the living room… E.E. is about the surprising sensitivity of the human nature intrinsic in the young soul, and also the frightening and dangerous strength of the sixth sense lying dormant in each of us.
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Primeval and Other Times (1996)
It was with this poetic and sensual book, one that won her Poland’s important Paszport Polityki and Nike awards, that Olga Tokarczuk really stepped into the literary limelight. The novel combines the elements of a family saga, an epic of Polish history and the very real mythology of everyday life. It’s no surprise that Primeval and Other Times, written in the tradition of magical realism, earned flattering comparisons to the work of Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
“Primeval is a place that lies in the centre of the universe” is how the book opens. The tiny village of Primeval (Prawiek in Polish) in the middle of Poland is a symbol of 20th-century Poland and a metaphor for the entire world: a magical and unfathomable cycle, where reality is closely intertwined with the realm of myth, Christianity with paganism, civilisation with natural elements, and quiet daily life with the iron tread of history. Before our eyes, this chronicle of the Boski and Niebieski families becomes a chronicle of the human race.
In honour of Olga Tokaczuk’s winning of the Nobel Prize, the city hall of Kraków announced that they would plant a forest outside of the city and it would be called Prawiek. First literature imitates life, and if this is done convincingly enough, life begins to imitate literature.
Primeval & Other Times. Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones. Prague: Twisted Spoon Press, 2010.
House of Day, House of Night (1998)
For the novel House of Day, House of Night, Tokarczuk used the technique of non-linear narrative for the first time in her writing career. This is not simply a book of stories, but a freakish mosaic of vastly different tales with a semi-mystic underside, close observations of the shifting between day and night, the lives of saints, descriptions of dreams and even recipes for mushroom dishes. The novel’s protagonist dwells in a private home on the outskirts of Nowa Ruda, ‘a city of hairdressers, second-hand clothes shops, men whose eyelids have become ingrained with coal dust’, at the foot of the Sudetes on the Polish-Czech border. By watching the lives of her neighbours (the elderly wigmaster Marta, who sees spirits and many other things) and communicating with them, she not only begins to better understand the world, but also open new dimensions of reality, inaccessible from a surface glance. An important aid in this are dreams, and not just her own – the protagonist is a collector of other people’s dreams, the most interesting of which (like, for example, how a character called Krystyna managed to find a stranger dreaming about her) she shares with us the reader.
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Tokarczuk attaches great importance to dreams, because, as she says through one of House of Day, House of Night’s characters, dreams ‘are always full of meaning, they never make mistakes. It is the real world that does not reach the level of dreams. A phone book tells lies, a train speeds off in the wrong direction, the streets resemble each other too much, the letters in the names of cities get confused, people forget their own names. Only dreams are truthful’. According to the author, existence is a curtain behind which lies some kind of other truth, which hasn’t managed to become events and objects. Therefore, we need to carefully look at what surrounds us, because ‘God created the world so that he could tell us what to do’.
House of Day, House of Night. Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones. Evanston, IL: Northwestern UP, 2003.
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Playing on Many Drums (2001)
Writing a good short story is often considered to be more difficult than writing a good novel. By publishing Playing on Many Drums, a collection of brilliant novellas, Olga Tokarczuk demonstrated that this task is well within her power. The thematic and stylistic diversity of these short stories is remarkable – the author truly beats on many different drums, each with their own timbre, mood and spirit. The word ‘playing’ here is significant in that it carries multiple meanings: from the very first pages Tokarczuk plays with the reader in a masterful, Nabokov-esque fashion and, of course, with her characters, who, at the whims of the author, freely leap from one level of narrative to another, traversing the boundaries of the real and imaginary worlds, like in the story ‘Open Your Eyes, You are Dead’.
The writer’s sense of humour is not held back either. Take, for instance, the story ‘Professor Andrews in Warsaw’, whose protagonist, a venerable English scholar and psychologist, arrives in Warsaw for a lecture on the eve of the introduction of martial law in Poland. He wakes up on the morning of 13th December 1981 in an apartment with its telephone disconnected and a completely Kafka-esque reality outside his window, with which even his extensive knowledge of psychology cannot help him cope. Many Polish readers were surprised that the dramatic events of Polish history could be written about in this way: with light humour, without strained patriotic pathos. Tokarczuk’s novellas display her sparkling skill at changing narrative masks and existential roles on the fly, at commanding power over time and space, and also at seeing details and noticing similarities between objects and phenomena. The last of these seems to be particularly important, since ‘likenesses weave things into a clever web that keeps the world’s intricate hairstyle in serene order’.
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The Last Stories (2004)
‘Three women. Three schoolgirls. One / with pigtails, another in a tailored dress. / The third has dyed grey hair. / For all three I will answer before God.’ – it seems that these elegant lines by Russian poet Boris Ryzhy, whose chief literary theme was that of death, could serve as an epigraph for Tokarczuk’s most piercing novel, The Last Stories. The book contains three stories, three women’s lives – a grandmother, mother and grandchild – and three encounters with mortality. Death appears here and in the background of the narrative and is nearly the main character. Critics justly dubbed the novel an ‘anti-saga’ – even the bonds of human sympathy, not to mention love, between the characters are practically torn apart. Cold and ice prevail, such is the climate of this sorrowful book, though the last part of the story takes place in Singapore
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The Last Stories tells us of insurmountable existential loneliness, and not only in a constantly emphasised motif (although the book does contain anti-patriarchal and even anti-male rhetoric). It’s about something else: like the German writer Hans Fallada once said: ‘Everyone dies alone.’ And that is something a person is never completely prepared for.
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Olga Tokarczuk’s most celebrated work, for which the writer won the Man Booker International Prize in 2018, is at first glance not quite consistent with the classic idea of a novel. It has an unusual composition – like a patchwork quilt or a detailed map of an unfamiliar starry sky. It is a multi-layered, multi-plot novel with a collective hero: the non-linear structure of the book unfurls through several novellas and short stories, notes ‘in the margins’, overheard conversations, dreams, letters, curious facts. However, such variety doesn’t make the novel incoherent or clumsy at all: all of the parts are expertly fitted together, and while approaching the ending you begin to see, almost physically feel, that all of these stories are closely intertwined with each other, forming a fanciful pattern, the gracefulness of which could by the envy of snowflake crystals.
The harmony of this construction, which critics compared to the ripples of a stone tossed into water, is provided by the fact that all the heroes of Flights are in constant motion, on a path, on a road, sitting in buses and airplanes, steamboats and trains. Travel for them is not simply a part of life, but life itself, like, for example, for the members of the sect of “flee-ers”, loathers of settled existence and thinking, that only constant movement in space will help a person slip away from the embrace of the Antichrist and the chains of Babylon. Tokarczuk’s characters could make the famous words of philosopher Gregory Skovorda into a motto: “The world tried to catch me but could not.” However, it’s wrong to think that this flight from suffocating certainty for them is an end in itself. An attentive reader will surely see a certain phrase is repeated several times throughout this rather extensive novel: “The purpose of the pilgrimage is another pilgrim”. Not one accidental meeting on the road is actually accidental, as it helps us through the incomprehensibility of the Other to see the infinity of one’s own “I”.
Flights. Translated by Jennifer Croft. New York: Penguin, 2018.
Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead (2009)
Olga Tokarczuk is known for her active support of animal rights movements and other ecological initiatives. She does not hide her left-wing, feminist, and anticlerical views, which, it must be said, tend to annoy many Polish politicians. Therefore it’s not surprising that the author’s social positions are also reflected in her books. The novel Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, later the motivation for director Agnieszka Holland’s 2016 film Spoor, can be called an ecological detective novel or a philosophical thriller.
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In the picturesque Kłodzko Valley near the foothills of the Sudetes, poachers regularly run rampage – themselves local elites who are cosy with the police and Catholic clergy. The only person who can’t quietly sit by and watch this happen is an English teacher, Janina Duszejko, an elderly and slightly eccentric old maid, a lover of astrology and the poetry of William Blake. But what can she do on her own? Soon, however, sinister events start to happen – these high-ranking hunters start dying off one after another. And the footprints around the bodies suggest that animals are involved in the killings…
In one of her interviews, Tokarczuk calls her book ‘a fairy tale with elements of a political pamphlet’. Those who hastened to accuse her heroine of ‘ecoterrorism’ clearly took both the book and the film adaptation too literally, overlooking the most important thing – the metaphor. The confident and arrogant hunters in Tokarczuk’s book act as symbols of patriarchy, brutality, cruelty and sexist male culture. Olga Tokarczuk’s novel, saturated with allegories and poetic imagery, in fact, is a protest against a misogynist culture that uses the cult of strength and insists upon its own reinforced-concrete rightness.
Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead. Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones. New York: Penguin Random House / Riverhead Books, 2019.
The Books of Jacob (2014)
The full title of this nearly thousand-page novel which won the Nike Award, Poland’s top literary prize, is The Books of Jacob, or A Great Journey Across Seven Borders, Five Languages and Three Major Religions, Not Counting the Little Ones. The wanderings, languages and religions here are truly numerous, especially since the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (the story takes place in the middle of the 18th century) was a unique melting pot of faiths, nationalities and cultures. In the centre of this vast historical-literary canvas, skilfully woven from the luxurious fabric of Central European history, is the turbulent life of a charismatic Jewish heretic, mystic and adventurer, Jacob Frank, who has declared himself the Messiah.
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It is this novel that the Swedish Academy, when justifying their awarding of the Nobel Prize to Olga Tokarczuk, classified as the writer’s magnum opus, her chief literary achievement. They also added that the author’s narrative imagination ‘with encyclopedic passion represents the crossing of boundaries as a form of life’. The Books of Jacob’s main character is perpetually crossing these boundaries, and with such ardour, as if ‘the whole world is not enough’ for him. And what underscores this passion, this indefatigability during the quest, is the entirely sumptuous style of the book – its language is lush, baroque, matching the era depicted, but at the same time very much alive and therefore, surprisingly modern.
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Bizarre Stories (2018)
This collection of ten stories, through each of which blows the light breeze of another world, immerses readers in a universe that is strange, incomprehensible and magical. And occasionally completely gothic, as in the breath-taking novella ‘The Green Children, or Descriptions of the Amazing Events in Volhynia, Composed by the Physician of His Royal Majesty Jan Kazimierz, William Davis’, a fable that is reminiscent of the works of Washington Irving or Edgar Allen Poe. Yet, it is very modern gothic and attempts to answer questions relevant to today. Our perception, Tokarczuk tells her faithful readers, over the years has been made to resemble an old hourglass, in which the grains are worn down and crushed, and so time now seems to go by faster. The world around us has become different, it is completely elusive, and in order to understand it, we need to fully change our point of view, even perform an internal reboot. This is primarily what occupies the characters of Bizarre Stories. Those who are not afraid of the strangeness of being, who have almost gone off the rails, have better luck than others – they more easily survive the cold of loneliness, the melancholy of ageing, and the gloomy sadness from the awareness of their own mortality.
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The Books of Jacob
Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead
Originally written in Russian, October 2019; translated by Katherine Alberti, Jan 2020