Writer and essayist, born in Sulechów in 1962. Nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2012, and winner of the Man Booker International Prize in 2018.
Outstanding writer and essayist and a devotee of Jung, Olga Tokarczuk is an authority on philosophy and arcane knowledge. She is a phenomenon of popularity - admired by both critics and readers.
Tokarczuk is one of the most critically acclaimed and most translated Polish writers, with House of Day, House of Night and Primeval and Other Tales being her greatest commercial and critical successes. She studied psychology at the University of Warsaw and lives in Wałbrzych. An outstanding writer, essayist and a devotee of Jung, she is an authority on philosophy and arcane knowledge. Undeniably a great discovery in Polish literature in the nineties, she is admired by both critics and readers. She is a phenomenon of popularity respected for her good taste, knowledge, literary talent, philosophical depth and the knack for storytelling. Tokarczuk, about herself, 'To me writing novels is telling fairy tales to oneself, moved to maturity'.
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Tokarczuk has won many awards, including the Polish Publishers' Association and Kościelski Awards, the readers' choice of the Nike Award four times and was many times nominated for the Nike Literary Award. In 2002 Tokarczuk and her German translator Esther Kinsky received the Brücke-Berlin prize for literature in translation for the 1998 novel titled Day House and Night House. The prize recognizes significant contemporary literary works from Central and Eastern Europe and their translations into German. Her short story The Ugliest Woman in the World was included in the Best European Fiction 2011 anthology, an annual anthology of stories from across Europe, published by Dalkey Archive Press. The haunting story is about a man who marries and has kids with an unbecoming woman. She is also recipient of the prestigious Usedomer Literaturpreis 2012 for her literary output. The jury of the award honoured her especially for the literary and intellectual restitution of Lower Silesia in the European historical experience and in the Polish language.
Having tried her hand at poetry as a teenager, Tokarczuk then went silent for many years to make a come back with Podróż ludzi Księgi (Journey of the People of the Book, editor's translation) in 1993, a novel which was very well received by critics. A kind of modern parable, it talks about a failed expedition for the mysterious Book and of the great love which develops between the main two characters. The plot is set in seventeenth-century France and Spain, yet it is not the local touch but the fascination with Mystery that is essential.
Tokarczuk's next novel, E.E, published two years later, takes us to a more recent past, its plot set in early twentieth-century Wrocław. The main character, Erna Eltzner, hence E.E., a girl growing up in a Polish-German burgher family, is found to possess the gift of the medium. Once again Tokarczuk reveals her fascination for mysteries which are out of reach of the human mind.
Her third novel, Primeval and Other Times (1996), is still widely considered her greatest and most resonant success and a top achievement in recent Polish mythographical prose. A mythical village called Prawiek said to be located in the very centre of Poland is an archetypal microcosm in which all the joys and sorrows known to mankind converge. Jerzy Sosnowski, a literary critic, wrote about the book, 'Using fragments of real history, Tokarczuk builds a myth, that is a perfectly ordered history in which all events, be they tragic or evil, are justified'.
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Primeval and Other Times recounts the hard passage of an imaginary village through a century of conflict, distant coups and decay. Centre-stage, however, are the village's colourful characters: an aristocrat who withdraws from life to play a rabbi's fantastical board game promising answers to life's great questions; a dog-loving madwoman pursued by the moon; a Soviet soldier who seeks sexual relief among forest beasts; a priest who wishes to tame a frog-infested river. Overlooking all is a vain selfish God who has become thoroughly bored with mankind and who must play second fiddle in Ms Tokarczuk's pantheistic world to material things: a sprawling mushroom root which links all matter together or a wooden coffee-grinder with which a young girl mills out time. - The Economist
Tokarczuk's next novel, House of Day, House of Night, written in 1998 and shortlisted for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award in 2004, is different both in genre and tone, and in fact it is misleading to call it a 'novel'. A hybrid of diverse and more or less advanced plots, quasi-essay observations, private notes and the like, it is Tokarczuk's most personal and 'local' book, drawing inspiration from the area where she lives (a village in Sudety on the Polish and Czech border), such as in the stunning story of the medieval Saint Kummernis, a woman whom God saved from an unwanted marriage by giving her a male face.
Although 1997 saw the publication of Tokarczuk's little collection of three short stories, it was not until Gra na wielu bębenkach / Playing Many Drums that readers had a chance to admire her talent as a writer of shorter works. The book came out in 2001 and consisted of nineteen short stories divided into three cycles. The first one, numbering a few short stories, merits the term 'self-analytical', for Tokarczuk addresses the phenomenon of literary and non-literary creation. The second cycle is apocryphal; like Tokarczuk's fascinating story of Kummernis, which was based on a true story which she had uncovered in provincial Lower Silesia, so four of the short stories featured in this volume have similar roots. Tokarczuk - in her very own way - develops the 'follow ups', embellishes and breathes life into naked historical facts. The third, large group of stories offer realistic or, strictly speaking, psychological and incidental observations.
In 2000 Tokarczuk published Lalka i Perła (The Doll and the Pearl) an essay which proposed a new reading of Bolesław Prus's late nineteenth-century novel Lalka considered a masterpiece of Polish literature.
Tokarczuk's 2004 book Ostatnie historie (Latest stories), is another collection of short stories. Short forms are evidently becoming her favourite genre, so much so that has even proposed a story-telling festival.
After 2004 she published two books, Anna w grobowcach świata (Anna in the Catacombs) in 2006 and Bieguni (Flights) in 2007. The latter was nominated for the Angelus Central European Literary Award as well as has been honoured with the 2008 Nike Literary Award. In 2018, Jennifer Croft's translation of Flights won the Man Booker International Prize, the most important literary award for international fiction in Britain.
Markedly different from her other books, Anna w grobowcach świata was written within the framework of the international Myths series which has authors (such as, for instance, Margaret Atwood or, prospectively, Jacek Dukaj) retell myths. Tokarczuk chose to retell the myth of Inanna, the Sumerian goddess of harvest and war who goes to her sister, the goddess of the underworld and death and unexpectedly comes back from there to the world of the living. Inanna is given a chance of returning by her fellow traveller, Nina Szubur, but the return is conditioned on her bringing someone else to the underworld. Her former lover is to be the sacrificial offering and his sister will partake in the sad obligation of staying in the underworld.The most striking aspect of the novel is the creation of a world in which the myth happens in a futuristic, cyberpunk environment. The characters use holographic maps, the kingdom of the underworld is shown as the undergrounds of a futuristic city, and the Father Gods whom Nina Szuber asks for help, resemble technocrats from some evil corporation. Literary critic Przemysław Czapliński observes that 'Tokarczuk has invented a genre, a language and a brand new way of speaking just for this book'.
Tokarczuk's Flights is not a travel book, but a book about the phenomenon of travel. After a mythographic novel with emotional ties to the described place Tokarczuk has surprised readers with a study of the psychology of travelling. At the same time the book's title is the name of an old Orthodox sect which believed that staying put made one vulnerable to the attacks of Evil, while continuous moving helped to redeem the soul. A similar motivation, though more secular and stemming from the longing for freedom, drives the heroes of each of the novel's themes. There is a woman who looks after a disabled child and who does not return home because of a revelation she experienced in church; an Australian researcher who revisits Poland years later, coming to see her terminally ill friend; a mother who takes her child and leaves her husband while on a family holiday in Croatia. There is also a story of Chopin's heart being transported to Poland, and one of a seventeenth-century anatomist, professor Ruysch, his daughter and his collection of specimens which gets ultimately sold to tsarist Russia.
With its many inter-connected themes, the structure of Flights brings to mind what Tokarczuk did in House of Day, House of Night. The concept worked well then - and it does so now, too.
Prowadź swój pług przez kości umarłych (Drive Your Plough Through the Bones of the Dead) was released in 2009. In the novel she toys with the genre of suspense while addressing the issue of a 'human' way of treating animals. Anne-Dore Krohn of the German kulturradio remarques 'it is a fantastic book. It is a deeply pessimistic and melancholic story about environment protection, set in the scenery of Silesian mountains, with an intertwined motif of suspense'. The book was brought to the big screen by Agnieszka Holland in 2017. The film titled Pokot (Spoor) was premiered at the Berlin film festival and won Berlin’s prestigious Silver Bear.
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In 2012, Tokarczuk published Moment niedźwiedzia (The Bear’s Moment) a collection of articles, prefaces, occasional pieces, thoughts, and humorous feuilletons which unexpectedly becomes an important compendium of the writer’s philosophy. It is also a political manifesto, a literary reaction to violence, exploitation, lies and propaganda promulgated by those in power that Tokarczuk considers one of her primary writerly obligations. The political and the literary are never divided by Tokarczuk.
In 2014, a long-awaited, and written over the period of six years The Books of Jacob was published by Wydawnictwo Literackie. It is not merely a novel about the past. It can be read as a reflective and sometimes mystical text concerning history, its twists and turns that determine the fortunes of entire nations. Almost a thousand pages, several dozen threads and characters The books of Jacob is an epically impressive novel, multifaceted and open to a wide range of interpretations. The story is set in 1752, the region of Podolia (part of Lesser Poland Province of the Polish Crown and revolves around a Jew named Jacob Leibowitz Frank. The mysterious newcomer from remote Smyrna begins to preach ideas that quickly introduce discord into the Jewish community. Considered a heretic by some and a saviour by others, he is soon surrounded by a circle of devoted disciples, and the unrest he finduced may change the course of history.
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Olga Tokarczuk draws extensively on the tradition of historical novel, broadening the scope of this genre. She depicts the epoch with meticulous care, including architecture, costumes, scents. We visit estate manors, Catholic presbyteries and Jewish homes, engrossed in prayer and mysterious scriptures. Before the readers’ very eyes, the writer weaves an image of Poland in its former days, when Christianity, Judaism, as well as Islam, co-existed side by side.
- Miasta w lustrach, Kłodzko, 1989.
- Podróż ludzi księgi, Warszawa: Przedświt, 1993; wznow. w wersji poprawionej: Warszawa: W.A.B., 1997.
- E.E., Warszawa: PIW, 1995.
- Prawiek i inne czasy, Warszawa: W.A.B., 1996.
- Szafa, Lublin: Wydawnictwo UMCS, 1997.
- Dom dzienny, dom nocny, Wałbrzych: Ruta, 1998.
- Opowieści wigilijne (razem z Jerzym Pilchem i Andrzejem Stasiukiem), Czarna Ruta, 2000.
- Lalka i Perła (esej), Kraków: Wydawnictwo Literackie, 2000.
- Gra na wielu bębenkach, Wałbrzych: Ruta, 2001.
- Ostatnie historie, Kraków: Wydawnictwo Literackie, 2004.
- Anna In w grobowcach świata, Kraków: Znak, 2006.
- Bieguni, Kraków: Wydawnictwo Literackie, 2007
- Prowadź swój pług przez kości umarłych, Kraków: Wydawnictwo Literackie, 2009
- Moment niedźwiedzia (zbiór esejów), Warszawa: Krytyka Polityczna, 2012
- Księgi Jakubowe, Kraków: Wydawnictwo Literackie, 2014
- House of day, house of night (Dom dzienny, dom nocny), trans. Antonia Lloyd-Jones. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern Univ. Press, 2003.
- House of day, house of night (Dom dzienny, dom nocny), trans. Antonia Lloyd-Jones. London: Granta Books, 2002.
- Primeval and other times (Prawiek i inne czasy), trans. Antonia Lloyd-Jones. Prague: Twisted Spoon Press, 2010.
- Dieu, le temps, les hommes, et les anges (Prawiek i inne czasy), trans. Christophe Glogowski. Paris: R. Laffont, 1998.
- Maison de jour, maison de nuit (Dom dzienny, dom nocny), trans. Christophe Glogowski. Paris: R. Laffont, 2001.
- Récits ultimes (Ostatnie historie), trans. Grażyna Erhard. Lausanne: Les Éditions Noir sur Blanc, 2007.
- Les pérégrins (Biguni), tłum. Grażyna Erhard, Lausanne: Noir sur Blanc, 2010.
- Sur les ossements des morts (Prowadź swój pług przez kości umarłych), trans. Margot Carlier, Lozanna: Noir sur Blanc, 2012
- Der Schrank: Erzählungen (Szafa), trans. Esther Kinsky. München: Dt. Taschenbuch-Verl., 2001.
- Der Schrank: Erzählungen (Szafa), trans. Esther Kinsky. Stuttgart; München: Dt. Verl.-Anst., 2000.
- Taghaus, Nachthaus: Roman (Dom dzienny, dom nocny), trans. Esther Kinsky. 2. Aufl. München: Dt. Taschenbuch-Verl., 2004.
- Taghaus, Nachthaus: Roman (Dom dzienny, dom nocny), trans. Esther Kinsky. Stuttgart; München: Dt. Verl.-Anst., 2001.
- Ur und andere Zeiten: Roman (Prawiek i inne czasy), trans. Esther Kinsky. Berlin: Berlin-Verl., 2000, 2002.
- Letzte Geschichten (Ostatnie historie), trans. Esther Kinsky, München: Dt. Verl.-Anst., 2006.
- Spiel auf vielen Trommeln (Gra na wielu bębenkach), trans. Esther Kinsky, Berlin: Matthes und Seitz, 2006.
- Anna In in den Katakomben [(Anna In w grobowcach świata), trans. Esther Kinsky, Berlin: Berlin-Verl., 2007
- Unrast (Bieguni), trans. Esther Kinsky, Frankfurt am Main: Schöffling & Co., 2009
- Der Gesang der Fledermause (Prowadź swój pług przez kości umarłych), trans. Doreen Daume, Frankfurt am Main: Schöffling & Co., 2011
- Az Öskönyv nyomában (Podróż ludzi Księgi), trans. Mihályi Zsuzsa. Budapest: Európa Kvk., 2000.
- Sok dobon játszani (Gra na wielu bębenkach), trans. Zsuzsa Mihályi, Lajos Pálfalvi, Budapest: Napkút K., 2006.
- Őskor és más idők (Prawiek i inne czasy), trans. Gábor Körner, Budapest: L’Harmattan, 2011
- Dio, il tempo, gli uomini e gli angeli (Prawiek i inne czasy), trans. Raffaella Belletti. Roma: E/O, cop. 1999.
- Che Guevara e altri racconti, trans. Silvano De Fanti, Udine: Forum, 2006
- Guida il tuo carro sulle ossa dei morti (Prowadź swój pług przez kości umarłych), trans. Silvano De Fanti, Roma: Nottotempo, 2012
- Nella quiete del tempo (Prawiek i inne czasy), trans. Raffaella Belletti, Rzym: Nottotempo, 2013
- Praamžiai ir kiti laikai: romanas (Prawiek i inne czasy), trans. Vyturys Jarutis. Vilnius: Strofa, 2000.
- Dienos namai, nakties namai (Dom dzienny, dom nocny), tłum. Vyturys Jarutis, Vilnius: Strofa, 2007.
- Put’ ljudej Knigi: roman (Podróż ludzi Księgi). Moskva: AST, 2002.
- Pravek i drugie vremena (Prawiek i inne czasy), trans. Tatiana Izotova Moskva: Novoe Lit. Obozrenie, 2004.
- Dom dnevnoj, dom nočnoj (Dom dzienny, dom nocny), Moskva: Tranzitkniga: AST Moskva Kyzyl: AST, 2005.
- Igra na raznych barabanach (Gra na wielu bębenkach), Moskva: Novoe Lit. Obozrenie, 2006.
- Poslednie istorii (Ostatnie historie), Moskva: Novoe Lit. Obozrenie, 2006.
- Beguni (Bieguni), Moskva: Novoe Lit. Obozrenie, 2010.
Tokarczuk's books were olso translated into Belarusian, Bulgarian,Catalan, Chinese, Croatian, Czech, Danish, Dutch, Estonian, Finnish, Hindi, Japanese, Mecedonian, Romanian, Serbian, Spanish,Ukrainian, Swedish.
Author: Paweł Kozioł, December 2008, updated by GS & AZ, May 2018