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The meteoric rise of Olga Tokarczuk, Poland’s pre-eminent novelist

The meteoric rise of Olga Tokarczuk, Poland’s pre-eminent novelist

A leading light of Polish literature, Olga Tokarczuk has this year taken the English-speaking world by storm, winning the prestigious Man Booker International Prize. We sat down with the influential novelist to discuss her writing in the context of Poland’s increasing conservativism

16 November 2018

Polish novelist Olga Tokarzcuk recalls her shock when, on a writers’ scholarship on an old estate in Scotland, she discovered some of the furniture dated from as far back as the 16th century. “We don’t have such a stable reality,” she says. “Poland is in the central corridor of Europe.” With people, wars, and regimes all passing through, such an object could only be found in a museum.

For many years, Tokarczuk, 56, has been showered with awards in Poland and across much of Europe, but she has been less lauded in English. This changed in May, however, when her novel Flights won the Man Booker International Prize, dramatically amplifying her voice in the Anglophone world. A few months later, her ecological thriller Drive Your Plough Over the Bones of the Dead was published in English.

I met Tokarczuk last month in her agents’ offices, tucked away in a mews in Notting Hill — a leafy, affluent part of London. From a small foyer I was ushered into a room where the high ceilings drew my eyes to the tops of old oak shelves filled to the brim with books and scattered folders. In the centre was a sprawling wooden table, at least a hundred years old. It took a while for me to notice Tokarczuk herself, almost lost in this reader’s paradise. She sat alone on a low chair, dwarfed by the table and huddled in a shawl, a pair of round, thick-rimmed glasses reflecting the low autumn light and hiding her eyes from view.

Speaking in English, we touched on a variety of difficult topics, including border politics, which are particularly contentious in Central and Eastern European. Tokarczuk herself lives in a small house about 200 metres from the Czech border, in Silesia, a region that includes parts of Poland, the Czech Republic, and Germany. “I am fascinated by the concept of borders,” she says. “Another one of my books, House of Day, House of Night, was kind of a study of borderland, because it was at that point that I realised the borderland is always in between two things — that dawn is much more interesting than day or night.” In 2015, Tokarczuk won the Brückepreis, which is given to people of any discipline — other winners include politicians, actors, and historians — whose life work contributes to greater mutual understanding between cultures.

“This mythology of moving borders is very strong in my family — can you imagine, my grandmother was born near Lvov, which is now Lviv in Ukraine, and, living in the same place, her citizenship changed three times? She was Austro-Hungarian, Soviet, and Polish.” It is this kind of fluidity — the absence of which she found so unsettling on the Scottish estate — that comes up again and again in Flights. When I ask about the connection, she mentions Polish philosopher and emigré Zygmunt Bauman, who developed the notion of “liquid modernity”. In a book of the same name, he states: “What has been cut apart cannot be glued back together. Abandon all hope of totality, future as well as past, you who enter the world of fluid modernity.”

“I realised the borderland is always in between two things — that dawn is much more interesting than day or night”

Her observations on fluidity in Central and Eastern Europe cast my mind back to a decades-old essay by Milan Kundera, in which he writes: “A French, a Russian, or an English man is not used to asking questions about the very survival of his nation. His anthems speak only of grandeur and eternity. The Polish anthem, however, starts with the verse, ‘Poland has not yet perished…’” Yet, we wonder aloud if this same instability has brought new possibilities to literature, birthing original forms of magical realism and surrealism — from Kafka to László Krasznahorkai to Tokarczuk herself.

Like her prose, Tokarczuk exudes energetic curiosity. Just as I was settling into our interview, she flipped the dynamic by questioning me (“do you think this book was a study in madness?”) and I had to dig my heels in to avoid becoming the interviewee. It’s no surprise to learn Tokarczuk was a trained psychoanalyst who practised for several years before turning to full time writing.

The town of Kłodzko in Silesia, near where Tokarczuk lives. Image: Stefan under a CC License

“Reality is something that we can perceive from many points of view — and this is the very first definition of literature for me,” she says, when I ask how psychoanalysis influenced her writing. “We are in a special position that each of us can look through our eyes and describe what we see — this is already a novel.” Her background in psychology is unmistakable. Her characters lose their “characterness” and become more like real people, with the capacity to grow, transform, and surprise. She presents characters not by looking at them, but by looking through their eyes and perceiving the world as they do.

“If you will ask me if I am still Freudian, I will, of course, say no! It doesn’t work like that,” she smiles. “But I cannot imagine a contemporary intellectual who doesn’t know the main ideas of Freud. I don’t think of them as empirically true — I think of them as essential metaphors, as myths.” Writers are deeply invested in the work of metaphors and myth-making; people carry these metaphors around, live by them, often subconsciously: hence the influence they have on our political lives. “The premise of democracy is that we have to be self-aware,” Tokarczuk continues, “in order to make decisions.”

Tokarczuk herself is a vegetarian, feminist, and Green Party advocate, positions that are all at odds with Poland’s increasingly conservative ruling government

I ask her about translation and what it means to be read in a different language. The question is especially relevant to Flights, a philosophical novel about travel. The original Polish title, Bieguni, is the name of an old Russian cult that believed the only way to avoid evil was to be in constant motion. Bieguni is also a play on words, as it hints at the Slavic root word biegać, which means to run or escape. With no English equivalent, it was clear the title needed to be changed. Translator Jennifer Croft came up with “flights” and Tokarczuk was delighted that this, too, had a range of meanings — not only a journey by air, but also the passage of time, a hasty departure, an exodus, an escape, or an extravagant idea (flights of fancy). However, by changing the title, the book lost a part of its metaphorical and metaphysical meaning.

Sentence structure in Polish is very flexible, which makes it easy to be ambiguous. But ambiguity is useful, Tokarczuk argues, not only for poetry but also for criticising politicians: you can say something meaningful without really having to say it. Politicians and prominent pressure groups have attacked Tokarczuk in Poland for her supposedly anti-nationalist and anti-religious ideas. But when I ask about this, she reminds me that Drive Your Plough Over the Bones of the Dead (2009) and Flights (2007) were written in a very different political climate. Just over a decade ago, she states, everything was opening up; this was before globalism became a dirty word. “But now we are living in a period of closing — I can hear the doors shutting,” she says. I respond pessimistically since I, too, hear the doors closing, but to my surprise, she has hope: “I really do believe that democracy has an inner self defence mechanism… one that can fight back against today’s anachronistic governments,” she says.

Storytelling has a great part to play in democracy’s self-defence. For Tokarczuk, self-awareness, or the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, is foundational to democracy. She lauds the recent film Clergy for its work exposing the corruption of the Catholic Church in Poland, which is already having a clear effect on public opinion ahead of parliamentary elections next year. Spoor, the 2017 film adaptation of Drive Your Plough Over the Bones of the Dead, may have a similar effect in ecological circles. The name of its protagonist, Janina Duszejko, recently made an appearance at demonstrations to save the UNESCO-protected Białowieża Forest from loggers — one demonstrator carried a sign that declared “Janina Duszejko won’t forgive you”, an allusion to the character’s brutal revenge on those bent on destroying nature for profit. Tokarczuk herself is a vegetarian, feminist, and Green Party advocate, positions that are at odds with Poland’s increasingly conservative ruling government.

Tokarczuk has proven herself to be one of Europe’s foremost writers and thinkers. Her books resonate not only for their compelling narratives, but for their moral and philosophical affirmations. Her commitment to exploring themes of feminism, borders, and ecological crises means her work is both a joy to read and a call to arms. In light of the contemporary political climate and looming environmental devastation — “like the Titanic,” in her words — the implications have never been so far-reaching, or so urgent.

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