Playful and profound: Polish Nobel laureate Olga Tokarczuk demands to be read
The winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature tells beguiling stories in magical prose
Good things come to those who wait. Last year, the Nobel Prize for Literature was postponed due to a sexual harassment scandal that rocked the Swedish Academy. This year, the eminent body plugged the gap by announcing Olga Tokarczuk as the 2018 winner. And what a worthy winner she is.
Tokarczuk, the first Polish Nobel laureate since poet Wisława Szymborska in 1996, is a wondrously inventive writer. Her multifarious novels defy easy categorisation. Her debut, The Journey of the Book-People (1993), is a parable that follows a group of characters in search of a mysterious book in 17th century France. Her third novel, Primeval and Other Times (1996), switches to the 20th century and traces the checkered history of several generations of a Polish family.
Two recent works have taken the Anglophone world by storm. Flights, published in English in 2017, captivated readers with its elaborate collage of discrete and interconnected tales, sketches, meditations and ideas revolving around the theme of human movement. And Tokarczuk’s latest offering, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, is a detective novel with a difference featuring a bizarre series of crimes, the most unlikely sleuth, and a jaw-dropping denouement.
The Nobel committee singled out Tokarczuk’s “narrative imagination that with encyclopedic passion represents the crossing of boundaries as a form of life”. If any leitmotif runs through her work, it is that of a boundary. As Tokarczuk told The National in an interview last year: “This idea of a borderland is very close to my mind. Between men and women, day and night. I am fascinated by this in-between.”
Tokarczuk was born in 1962 in Sulechów, western Poland, to teacher parents. Her father was also a librarian and it was in his library that his daughter developed a love of reading. She studied psychology at the University of Warsaw and then pursued a career as a therapist in the field of addiction. When it got too much for her, she quit her job and turned her hand to poetry and then prose.
Tokarczuk has been a household name in her native land since her first novel won a literary prize. At the same time, she is no stranger to controversy. As a vegetarian, feminist and environmental activist, she has frequently ruffled feathers in conservative circles. When she spoke out about Poland’s colonial crimes of the past, she was branded a traitor by so-called Polish patriots. And when the film version of Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead premiered, it was accused of being anti-Christian and sympathetic to eco-terrorism.
Fortunately, Tokarczuk’s detractors are outnumbered by her admirers. With the Nobel to her name, she can expect a great deal more of the latter. For years, European readers and critics have relished her formal daring, artful innovations, beguiling storytelling and magical prose, which so effortlessly veers between the playful and the profound, often on the same page.
English-readers are on catch-up. Those new to the party should begin with her two recent breakthrough novels. Flights, the winner of the 2018 Man Booker International Prize, is a strange, dizzying ride of a book. Tokarczuk has described it as “a modern travel book”. She has also classed it more vividly as a “constellation novel”, whereby readers use their imaginations to make sense of, and find pleasure from, the hotchpotch of voices, stories and reflections.
In one disquieting tale, a man visits a Croatian island where he loses his wife and child in peculiar circumstances. In another, a woman is plunged into a dark, Dostoevskian underground tour of Moscow. In some of the fact-based stories we meet the Dutch anatomist who discovered the Achilles tendon when dissecting his own amputated leg, and track Chopin’s heart on its clandestine journey from Paris to Warsaw. Throughout the book Tokarczuk sprinkles snippets about aspects of travel, from guidebooks to air-sickness bags, plus accounts of a Polish woman’s life and her various “pilgrimages”.
More accessible yet equally rewarding is Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead in which eccentric, semi-solitary Janina turns her attention from her “Ailments”, her astrology charts and her William Blake poems to find the killer of a number of local men. Her opening confession introduces a singular voice and starts an intriguing adventure: “I am already at an age and additionally in a state where I must always wash my feet thoroughly before bed, in the event of having to be removed by an ambulance in the Night.”
The Nobel win means more of Tokarczuk’s back catalogue will become available. Slated for release next year is her magnum opus, The Books of Jacob, a 900-page historical epic about Jakub Frank, an 18th century Polish Jew who proclaimed himself the Messiah and led the forcible conversion of his followers to Islam and Catholicism. Tokarczuk’s extensive research involved tracing Frank’s footsteps on road-trips through Ukraine, Bulgaria, Romania, the Czech Republic, Germany and Turkey. Her efforts paid off as the novel went on to win Poland’s highest literary award, the Nike Prize.
For some, the Nobel Prize in Literature has lost its cachet. Philip Roth was always the bridesmaid, never the bride. Haruki Murakami and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o continue to wait in the wings. And then there are the winners: a lack of women; a disproportionate amount of Swedes; Bob Dylan; the 2019 laureate Peter Handke, an avowed apologist for Slobodan Milošević. The gripes go on.
But with Tokarczuk the Swedish Academy has got it right. The critic James Wood called her “a talented redescriber of the world”. Through her words we see the world in a markedly different, thoroughly refreshing light. She deserves to be honoured and demands to be read.
Updated: October 11, 2019 10:33 AM