“Tenderness is the art of personifying, sharing feelings, and therefore discovering endless similarities,” Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk said in her Nobel Prize talk in 2018. The lecture title, “The Tender Narrator”, elegantly describes Tokarczuk’s unique narrative style: rather like a therapist’s, her approach to writing is marked by love, gentleness, and genuine curiosity about her characters’ lives and motivations.
Born in Sulechów, Poland, in 1962, she originally worked as a clinical psychologist before starting to write — first poetry, and later the novels that brought her international recognition. Tokarczuk’s first collection of poems was published in 1989, and her first novel in 1993. Since then, she has risen to critical acclaim worldwide, winning Poland’s Nike Award, the Brückepreis for promoting mutual understanding between European nations, and the 2018 Nobel Prize in Literature “for a narrative imagination that with encyclopedic passion represents the crossing of boundaries as a form of life”. Boundaries and border crossings — both physical and psychological — remain vital elements in her work. Her home in Krajanów in a multilingual and multicultural region near the Polish-Czech border serves as the backdrop and inspiration for several novels. In a 2018 interview with The Calvert Journal, she noted that the “mythology of moving borders” runs deep in her family: without ever moving, her grandmother acquired three different citizenships—Austro-Hungarian, Soviet, and Polish.
Her focus on borderlands and their linguistic, cultural, and religious ambiguity has meant that Tokarczuk is not universally popular in her home country, as it faces a strong swell of conservatism. Her writing often leans on Poland’s diverse history — a diversity that “official” history is keen to neglect or deny. A senator for the ruling Law & Justice party claimed that Tokarczuk’s work was in “absolute contradiction to the assumptions of Polish historical politics”. One only has to look at the backlash against Tokarczuk — a prominent feminist, critic of the church, and advocate for climate justice — to know that literature is an immense political force. However mystical, capricious, and wild, Tokarczuk’s fantasies have a knack for bringing out what is already present in the real world. “In a sea of many definitions of fiction,” she states, “the one I like the best is also the oldest, and it comes from Aristotle. ‘Fiction is always a kind of truth.’”
Starting out with Tokarczuk? Begin with Flights — a wunderkammer of images and ideas — and work your way up to her magnum opus, The Books of Jacob.
“All my life I’ve been fascinated by the systems of mutual connections and influences of which we are generally unaware, but which we discover by chance, as surprising coincidences or convergences of fate, all those bridges, nuts, bolts, welded joints and connectors that I followed in Flights.”
The Polish title of Flights, “Bieguni”, pays homage to a nomadic Slavic sect who thought that being in constant movement would keep them hidden from evil. This book of fragments contains everything from biography to cartography, each a variation on the titular concept. It follows Chopin’s heart from Paris to Warsaw; a Russian mother who walks out of her confining life and into Moscow’s vast metros; a literal flight that begins and ends at dawn. There are essays on guidebooks, airports, and Wikipedia; meditations on the human hosts of billions of bacteria and viruses; reflections on people who only “start to exist when the immigration officers stamp their passports”. Flights is a perfect place to begin in Tokarczuk’s oeuvre, awash in her playfulness, curiosity, and psychological insight. It is a distinctly modern novel, taking inspiration from Calvino’s Invisible Cities, the first encyclopaedias, and even Moby Dick, to present dozens of bewitching iterations of that age-old human tendency to be on the move.
In an interview, Tokarczuk called House of Day, House of Night a “kind of study of borderland”. One of her earliest works, she claims it was the moment she realised what drew her to liminal, in-between spaces (“dawn is much more interesting than day or night”). In the novel, the narrator moves to a small Silesian village called Nowa Ruda near the Czech border, an otherwise pastoral location dominated by a sense of anxiety and unease. The confluence of cultures — Polish, Czech, and the ghosts of expelled Germans — provide a backdrop to a series of unusual events: a man dies straddling the border and triggers a political crisis; a website collects people’s dreams and nightmares; the narrator writes a recipe for how to prepare poisonous mushrooms in wine and sour cream, since “we’re all going to die, regardless of whether we eat this or that.” She elaborates — the mushrooms in question were harmlessly eaten by generations, until modern guides labelled them poisonous. Like the unfortunate corpse whose leg crossed the Czech border, the problem was not the limb, but our impulse to categorise things. Is the novel a lesson in how nomenclature shapes reality — how a plant becomes toxic, or how or a border is made real? Is it fantasy? Historical fiction? A novel at all? Tokarczuk manages to evade classification and write a fable-like book with many ambiguous morals — hinting that there is no such thing as poisonous mushrooms, only human distinctions.
The protagonist of Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead is someone you’d like to know, but might consider to be a bit eccentric. A retired engineer-cum-teacher in a sleepy border village, the first-person narrator Janina Dusezjko’s interior monologue is littered with proper nouns — Animals, Ailments, Night — something she borrows from her favourite poet William Blake. In between writing up astrological charts and chatting to deer in the forest, she starts investigating a series of mysterious crimes. Drive Your Plow is Tokarczuk’s whimsical interpretation of an ecological thriller — several ordinary but dislikable men are brutally murdered in the dead of winter, and it seems like nature itself is the villain. But the eco-thriller tropes and gruesome details are just a gateway to realising the true depth and depravity in our relationship to the non-human animals around us. Tokarczuk’s wittiest novel is no less dark, penetrating, and electric than the rest.
“Once upon a time there was a man who worked very hard and very quickly, and who had left his soul far behind him long ago…”
So begins Tokarczuk’s first book for both adults and children, a collaboration with the Polish visual artist Joanna Concejo. The Lost Soul tells a brief and simple tale about a man whose hurried life far outpaces his soul. Waking up in a hotel one morning, he is unable to tell who he is or where he has landed, and must slow his life down to a grinding halt. He retreats into a tiny cabin and waits for the slow, small feet of his inner child to catch up with him. The book’s English translation arrived just in time to catch us all enduring our own “peaceful winters”, with our lives suspended by the effects of the pandemic. Tokarczuk and Concejo offer a beautiful, consoling little book that encourages us to let go of the impulse to be perpetually busy, and to make sure we haven’t left our souls behind.
“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.”
Widely acknowledged to be her magnum opus, and certainly living up to the claim by its sheer size, The Books of Jacob is a spellbinding account of a young, charismatic Jewish man rumoured to be the Messiah. Jacob Frank was a real man whose teachings became the foundation of Frankism, a Sabbatean Jewish movement that encouraged “redemption through sin”, feasting on fast days, overturning rules on modesty and purity, and transgressing every moral boundary. Tokarczuk keeps Frank at arm’s length, describing him through his contemporaries: a merchants’ caravan, a weary doctor, a Baroque poet, a woman on her deathbed at a wedding, a priest writing an encyclopedia… Whether Frank is a true mystic, Messiah, or fraud remains unclear, as Tokarczuk plunges into the rich and extraordinary history of a slice of Europe on the brink of the Enlightenment. While war, pogroms, and the era’s other calamities play out in the background, Tokarczuk busies herself over some 900 pages with more ordinary affairs: fairy tales, courtyards, fine wines, and Turkish tobacco, each meticulously researched to create a vast, diverse, sensual world.