A collection of beautifully written stories touching upon the double lives of writers, the negation of oneself, and literature as a battle drum
Olga Tokarczuk, like no other author, is able to write about matters of the highest importance. As in Scottish Month:
We grow like nightshade, and we blossom but once a year, on Midsummer's Eve. Our seeds ride upon rivers out into the world. We appear only occasionally, at the time of wars, uprisings and historic disasters. We change our language each morning as we do our clothes. We are mongrels, have houses on wheels, and our passports are virtually illegible. Oh, but we don't have a problem with the Cyrillic alphabet. Even our pope is mobile - he travels hither and thither, a restless guy in white. We will never grow up; we always reach for dessert before we have had the main course. We really are an odd lot - we turn up and then disappear. Maybe it's because of the climate or the endless plains. Our small plant civilisation leaves infantile traces behind it, to the distress of all future archaeologists: drums, broken tin soldiers, single words which are far too difficult to pronounce.
The stories which make up the volume Playing on a Multitude of Drums differ greatly from each other, not only in terms of their subject, but also in their form. Although some are located very precisely in time and place, at the same time they remain outside this time and place. The hero of the story Island, who has been witness to a miracle, asks the author 'to create fiction from his story'. The latter is inscribed in literature, is its basic prerequisite. In Scottish Month, the author notes:
It astonished me to discover that writing about oneself creates someone else. That it is impossible to be observer and observed, the one who understands and is understood, at the same time. This undoubtedly explains why there is untruth in every memoir and fantasy in every autobiography.
Olga Tokarczuk uses words to conjure up worlds which contain a large dose of intrinsic truth. As in the title story, she is always extracting new characters from herself – 'like a rabbit from a hat'. She does not invent them; does not dissimulate. She knows at least this much: in order to become someone else, one has to negate oneself, 'leave the house as A and return to another house as B'. Olga Tokarczuk is a master at this and can be as convincing as her heroine in the story Playing on a Multitude of Drums. In an unfamiliar city, this woman succeeds in entrancing people unknown to her, from an unknown culture, with the story of a man who was killed in battle and who, before dying, bade that his skin be made into a drum with whose sound the others should rouse themselves to battle.
Literature is also such a drum, one which calls for the hand of an experienced drummer.
The book was nominated for the Polish Literary Prize NIKE'2002.
Playing on a Multitude of Drums / Gra na wielu bębenkach
Wydawnictwo Ruta, Walbrzych 2001
© de Geus, rights available
124 x 201, 344 pages, hardcover
Written by Krzysztof Masłoń, Nov 2002