· I Burn Paris by Bruno Jasienski ·
Order direct from Twisted Spoon here.
· Lovetown by Michal Witkowski ·
Translated by Bill Martin, reviewed in the Guardian:
So, to all readers who might feel either intimated or guilty about enjoying the company of some very old-fashioned queens from a country you’re probably more used to providing your plumber than your literature, reassure yourself that this hilarious, scabrous, sharp-eyed, sharp-tongued (and brilliantly translated) novel is essentially and life-enhancingly political – if by politics we mean who gets to live, and how. Treat yourself; buy it.
· Primeval and Other Times by Olga Tokarczuk ·
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones. Buy it directly from Twisted Spoon
Primeval and Other Times was selected by Polityka magazine for its 20 volume series of great Polish literature of the 20th century (alongside Milosz, Hlasko, Mrozek, and Herbert among others). This is Jaroslaw Klejnocki’s introduction (original here):
“Primeval and Other Times” marked the turning point in the literary career of Olga Tokarczuk, thanks to which she achieved artistic and commercial success.
Published in 1996, the book received multiple awards, including the Koscielski Prize, the Passport prize from “Polityka” magazine as well as being short listed for the Nike prize and winning the Nike readers’ prize. With “Primeval…” Olga Tokarczuk won the hearts and sympathies of international as well as Polish readers. Her books have been translated into several languages (including Chinese and Danish), and the author is well known on the international scene and is at the forefront of the ‘export’ of Polish literature. Her prose has won the readers’ prize of the Nike four times and 2008’s jury awarded her the main prize (for her novel “Bieguni/ Runners”).
With “Primeval…” Tokarczuk confirmed the hopes placed in her as revitalising the storytelling tradition in Polish prose, and fulfilled expectations in the emergence of a writer who is simultaneously original, intriguing, ambitious, and accessible. Books which one is simply keen to read, and also to return to repeatedly.
“Primeval…” is a unique novel, and at the same time a very interesting artistic project. On the one hand it is a saga, harking back to the best traditions of the genre, telling the story of two families – the Boski and Niebieski – living in a fictional village Primeval, located somewhere in the Kielce region. The action of the book begins at the outbreak of World War I, and continues up to the 1980s and describes the trials of three generations. But it is also a stream of consciousness novel, portraying the world as a number of threads – reflective, magical, historical, philosophical – and fills the story with numerous other characters whose often perplexing fates form a specific puzzle of reality and a collective portrait of the Polish provinces in the past century.
Tokarczuk does not base the story around great events, or cultural, political or historical processes. She takes the perspective of individuals – the book is primarily after all a novel (moreover, clearly bearing the mark of feminism) and in this lies the power and conviction of its narrative. The portrayal of individuals (especially women), and their entangled and convoluted roads through life seem to be at the same time surprisingly accurate and – most importantly – authentic, and thus gain the acceptance of the reader.
Another merit of “Primeval…” is the way in which the story is framed. The Primeval of the title is a provincial village, but also a metaphor for the world. Reymont’s Lipce [in Peasants] is a closed space, where everything happens: history intervenes brutally, politics interferes with it, there is social and cultural change, but the main stream of events takes place in the hermetic circle of the local community, made up as much of common as of original human individuality.
Tokarczuk portrays the Polish province in a manner unlike other Polish writers dealing with this topic. She does not engage in satire, like Redlinski (the author of “Konopielki”), nor cultivate nostalgia like Mysliwski (author of “Stone upon Stone”), nor is she fascinated by the collapse of traditional peasant culture and social drama like Kawalec (the author of “Dancing Hawk”). Her village is as much realistic as magical. Her novel – as much psychological as symbolic. In a sense, the artistic vision of Tokarczuk in “Primeval” recalls the works of the Romantics: a mixture of realism and fantasy, rational description and magic, a story rooted in history, and simultaneously full of the fantastical.
It can, of course, be read as a story of the Polish countryside in the turbulent century of war and political transition. It can also be read as a parable of the complexity of human fate, as a psychological and metaphorical novel simultaneously.
The key to understanding “Primeval” however, is myth. Tokarczuk says about Primeval: “Since I can recall, I have wanted to write a book of this kind. To create and describe the world. It is the story of a world which, like all living things, is born, grows and dies”. Myth is in fact a universal template of human fate. Every great novel goes back to the myths – says the writer – that is the repository of universals. And this is just as it is with “Primeval…”
More sophisticated readers will find in this book Buddhist reflections on human and animal suffering, a sentimental and romantic attitude to nature, a Jungian reinterpretation of tragic suffering as a metaphor for human existence, a dialogue between the Pascalian and the Enlightenment rational perception of the concept of God, and finally a pessimistic and Gnostic vision of the world.
But above all it is a breathtaking story of human life and struggle with oneself, with circumstances, with morality and religion, with history. A story full of tenderness for the world, despite its cruelty, and for the people living in it who want at all costs, with varying results, to give meaning to their existence.
Text copyright Polityka and Jaroslaw Klejnocki
· Olga Tokarczuk on her new book in Polish “Drive your plough over the bones of the dead” ·
Interview in Polityka in Polish here.
Justyna Sobolewska: In your new book, “Drive your plough over the bones of the dead” you combine a thriller, a popular genre, with a dark vision of the world and the poetry of William Blake. Where did the idea come from?
Olga Tokarczuk: I had half a year, I wanted to do something light. I also thought that since I was writing a pastiche of a thriller with a crime novel plot – because these days maybe it’s not possible to write something like this wholly sincerely – I would treat the work seriously. I tried to meet the requirements of genre fiction: that it had to be digestible, short and with illustrations. They were drawn by Jaromir, I’m really happy with them, because they’re affectingly sad. It turned out that even if my intentions were rather modest, writing this book I really lived it and went deeply into it. When I set the characters in motion, sketched out situations for them, I had the impression that I was playing a powerful ancient mythological game. So in this sense I didn’t shift too far from my usual concerns.
The title quote from Blake has multiple meanings, one could even imagine the theme would touch on the Holocaust.
The hunters’ lookouts in the illustrations do indeed look like the towers in concentration camps. I think this association is reasonable, but not very relevant to the crime novel. The epigraphs are also from Blake, from Proverbs of Hell and Auguries of Innocence.
You predict in this book the revenge of nature on humankind: enough of the rule of humans, soon it will be time for retaliation.
This book is in a certain sense apocalyptic, even if the vision of the apocalypse is born in the heads of people who we don’t take too seriously.
You write that one can know a country by how it treats its animals, so how is it in Poland?
Long, long ago in Palaeolithic times, people had a magical-sisterly relationship to animals. They were treated as equal entities, just simply somewhat different. Later we started to treat animals in a utilitarian fashion, as tools and objects, which were milked and eaten. After this there was only demoralisation and decline, which ends up with the vision of the modern slaughterhouse, which kills mechanically, in sterile white gloves. Religion comforted us, assuring us that animals were created for our use. Even in the 19th century they taught in the universities, that animals cannot feel pain.
Today some of that old sensitivity is returning.
In the Netherlands for example there is a Party for Animals. I t has two people in parliament and they try to speak in the name of those without a voice. They’ve brought about a lot of good laws, like forbidding farming for fur. In the course of my life a lot has changed. When I was a child and I saw films with horses in battle, I couldn’t concentrate because I was worried what had happened to the horses. Now no-one would make a film without a special adviser on animal matters, whereas once they were killed on set, now this is unimaginable. On the other hand, the range of violence done to animals has increased in an unimaginable way. This is mainly mass breeding for meat. This level of cruelty is not imaginable for the average person so it is carefully hidden.
In your book not only humankind bears the blame, but the entire world is condemned.
The book reflects on why things are they way they are, and whether there is something we can change. And of course we could all wear sneakers and not eat meat, harass institutions which mistreat animals. Yes, that’s exactly what we should do. But there is a very disturbing question: why should it be that one creature must eat another in order to survive? Why is it so easy to inflict death, and with such impunity? This is some bug in the software of the world, as Janina Duszejko says, my main character in this book.
Here the world is a machine without God, like with the Gnostics.
Yes, this is the point of view of one of the great alternative myths in the history of human thought. Uncomfortable, driven underground, contesting the official optimism and vision of a world full of love and goodness.
You cite Blake’s Ulro. Milosz called the Land of Ulro the decline of the religious imagination, here Ulro appears to mean the decline of empathy for suffering.
Blake mourned the fact that the world is a machine under the rule of Urizen. The Land of Ulro is a barren world, without emotion, without sex, without freedom, it is a desert where soulless law prevails. That is how the world looks without imagination. It seems to me that empathy is a form of imagination. Probably not all people have equal abilities for empathy, and so they don’t really understand what we want from them, when we ask them to put themselves in the place of another person or animal. It’s a widening of their imagination at an emotional, sympathetic level. Very Buddhist. Blake wouldn’t have known about Buddhism, but if he had, he would certainly have liked it.
It is difficult to live with a sharpened consciousness, you write that “every particle of the world is made of suffering” – how to bear it? Unawareness is what protects people.
In the end it is a moral choice – to know or not to know. Duszejko has her own theory of defence mechanisms, saying that our entire psyche is one great defence mechanism, because otherwise, as a result of our high human intelligence we would disintegrate with a bang, not being able to bear the suffering around us. I understand that we have to defend ourselves, but we don’t have to also deceive ourselves. I think that terrible truth is better than ignorance. From this comes art and literature, in order to shake us by the shoulder and wake us from our unreflective daydream.
Duszejko, who is called a “crazy old woman” has a lot in common with Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello.
Yes, she’s a similar type, but Costello was an intellectual. My character is more similar to the heroines of Leonora Carrington. Of my previous characters, Duszejko is most similar to Florentynka who talked with the moon and took care of cats and dogs, and also Parka from “Final Stories”. There is great potential in the character of an older woman who the world relegates to the margins of social life. These characters have always especially moved me. In Warsaw, around ‘Winnie the Pooh’ Street, there is a woman who feeds the cats. She turns up with plastic bags, and cats run out to her from all kinds of holes and basements – they are expecting her. Around her is the vibrant life of the capital, buses driving past, the stock market working, the Court’s pronouncing judgements. And she appears with her bags among the animals and time stops around her. And this is a moment of epiphany, this is the goddess Artemis or Demeter, who resemble an old woman with a cane, with two bags of food for dogs and cats.
I have the impression that this is your most revolutionary book, the sign of opposition to reality is clear.
This book for me is like “Anna In in the Catacombs”. These two books are in some sense similar to each other. Angry. “Anna In” was dressed in the costume of mythology and fantasy, this book plays with the conventions of the crime novel. But it is still the same story of rejection of hypocrisy and suffering. But the main characters are diametrically opposite. Duszejko is in no way similar to the triumphal Anna In. She is an old woman, a retired school teacher who leads her own quiet life in Kotlina Klodzka, who takes care of the summer houses of her neighbours. She and her friends recall the good old days of the hippies, revolution and flower power, a New Age with some kind of new fresh way of thinking about the world.
It was very important to me that Duszejko created positive feelings, that the book was playful, to offset the dark humour that at times is a little black. That’s why the fairly gloomy story is told with a certain amount of distance, even though it has an absolutely tragic dimension. These days people are frightened of speaking seriously, sincerely. They prefer irony and coolness. The don’t trust their own emotions or anger. I value irony, I think it is the best hallmark of intelligence, but overused, for example to trivialise things that are important and painful, it becomes bad intelligence. My characters are rather naïve, and – as they say about themselves – useless, they didn’t establish a career, didn’t achieve anything, they are losers and weirdoes. But at least they realise this and don’t pretend to be anything else.
There are some comic observations in “Plough” regarding Poles, we can’t manage to create any kind of community like the Association of Mushroomers.
I’ve lived in the countryside for a long time and I know what I ‘m talking about. We meet in order to celebrate festivals once a year, but each of us has their own interests, their own place where the best boletus grow which they will never share. We are an unwilling community of individualists. We don’t have in our culture traditions of association, helping each other or being together. It’s a paradox that our great “Solidarity” was named like this, because this is exactly what we lack.
A Czech paradise appears in this book.
Duszejko idealises the Czechs. And there is something to this. I myself envy Czechs a lot of things, like their relaxation, their unpretentious naturalness. I envy them that they shamelessly broadcast their folk music on practically all the radio stations. Very often in the countryside I hear their brass umpa-umpa. I envy their rootedness in their own Czechness. It’s so natural to be a Czech. But to be a Pole is to have problems with Polishness, with oneself, with the whole country, with history. Starting with the great writers, and ending with the minor labourer or plumber, who has emigrated to London, and they all feel uncomfortable with their own Polishness.
You write barely anything here either about contemporary reality, or about history.
I tried to keep this book clear of the kind of politics as it is understood by the media, that is summarised disputes, martyrology, history understood as an accounting of dates of particular events. But the book is extremely political. It is political in the widest sense of politics as an evaluation of what is happening around us, and the telling stories of certain aspects of these events.
The story is told via astrology, a not very serious field these days.
Unimportant people occupy themselves with unimportant fields: the poetry of Blake, the stars, in other words: with rubbish. Every modern member of the contemporary, developing, liberal world will look at them in a patronising way, full of a feeling of superiority and compassion. Astrology? Blake? All of this “New Age”? Who does that move today? All of this is now funny, unfashionable, passé…
Astrology has turned itself into Horoscopes, but Jung is out of fashion….
Well exactly. Every generation feels that it is absolutely new and it will do everything from the beginning and properly. I also thought that. When I studied psychology at the start of the 1980s I believed that humanist psychology would change the world for the better. That we were free and could do great things. That loving children and bringing them up wisely would build a healthy society, that humankind is good by nature and so on. And now, after 20 years there is a completely different paradigm: socio-biological, scientism. And from that point of view those times are only pathetically funny, like the cut of trousers or 80s hairstyles.
Reality is the bundle of languages with which we speak about the world. Writers should try to find their own language in this chaos. And astrology was always for me an old and beautiful way of looking for order and laws which rule over us, always flexibly adapted to the era. What most fascinated me was the need to link the macro and microcosms, which is the fundament of astrology. I would like it if it really were like that. Traditional astrology is incredible in the way it bores into the details of human life, it shows in detail, how the great cosmos influences our little lives. It gives one courage.
Astrology provides order, but it seems to me that you used to write about the world in terms of chaos?
Chaos is the opposite of order, so writing about one, is simultaneously to write about the other. My characters are not comfortable with chaos and search for knowledge, which will reveal an order that had been previously hidden. Knowledge is able to liberate us. In “The Journey of the People of the Book”, they look for the book so that everything will finally be made clear. In each book in turn, I describe people looking for order: it might be psycho-spiritual like in “EE”, mythological like in “Primeval and Other Times”. Each time it is an order that is not religious, there is no God there in the Christian sense. In “Runners” it’s a runners’ order, a cosmos of atheists, who must create an ethical order for themselves. The dying Professor of Greek has a vision of the renewal of humankind, he dreams of once more starting from the beginning, to return to Greece, to see a world full of gods. Artemis feeds cats, Hermes sells socks from a stall, Neptune is a plumber. Something which had been lost is restored, and we could live in a dignified way, because our choices would be real choices, not the mere gestures of unimportant and meaningless rats.
Once I wanted to take this direction, to show a world which is filled with epiphanies. It’s very possible that as I get older I’m getting dangerously close to Janina Duszejko.
Interview copyright Polityka and Justyna Sobolewska.
· Robert Buckeye on Fado by Andrzej Stasiuk ·
In Fado, Stasiuk puts the blasted landscape of Nine (“every lavatory lady used to tell stories Scheherazade wouldn’t dream of when she finally hit the sack”) and the horrors of Darwinian survival in the mountains behind him. “This lyric of loss, this Slavic On the Road,” he describes the book, footnotes his novels, giving them the analytic hinge he refuses in his fiction. In Fado, he outlines why the East is a stranger in the West and still a threat to it; how the long history of the twentieth century uprooted the East; in what ways capitalism puts so many lives in the East at risk. Fado also follows his search—the legacy of the road—for a new life, his “Europeanness” questioned from either side, not only by the West but also by Gypsies, who Stasiuk is drawn to because their “ahistorical presence” defies understanding by the modern world.
More at Words Without Borders
· Translator’s preface to An Obscure Apostle (Meir Ezofowicz) by Eliza Orzeszkowa ·
In Lord Palmerston’s days, the English public naturally heard a great deal about Poland, for there were a goodly number of Poles, noblemen and others, residing in London, exiles after the unsuccessful revolution, who, believing that England would help them to recover their lost liberty, made every possible effort to that end through Count Vladislas Zamoyski, the prime minister’s personal friend. But even in those times, when the English press was writing much about the political situation in Poland, little was said about that which constitutes the greatest glory of a nation, namely, its literature and art, which alone can be secure of immortality. Only lately, in fact, has any public attention been paid by English people to Polish literature. However, among the authors who have attracted considerable attention of late, is the writer of “By Fire and Sword,” whose “Quo Vadis,” has met with a phenomenal reception. Henryk Sienkiewicz has by his popularity proved that in unfortunate, almost forgotten, Poland, there is an abundance of literary talent and an important output of works of which few English readers have any conception. For instance, who has ever heard, in Great Britain, of Adam Michiewicz the great Polish poet, who, critics declare, can be placed in the same category with Homer, Virgil, Dante, Tasso, Klopstock, Camoens, and Milton? Joseph Kraszewski as a novel writer occupies in Poland as high a position as Maurice Jokai does in Hungarian literature, while Mme. Eliza Orzeszko is considered to be the Polish Georges Sand, even by the Germans, who are in many respects the rivals of Slavs in politics and literature.
Henryk Sienkiewicz, asked by an interviewer what he thought about the contemporary Polish literary talents, replied: “At the head of all stand Waclaw Sieroszewski and Stefan Zeromski; they are young, and very promising writers. But Eliza Orzeszko still holds the sceptre as a novelist.”
When the “Revue des Deux Mondes” asked the authors of different nationalities to furnish an essay on women of their respective countries, Mme. Orzeszko was chosen among the Polish writers to write about the Polish women. It may be stated that translations of her novels appeared in the same magazine more than twenty years ago. She is not only a talented but also a prolific writer. She has suffered much in her life, and her sufferings have brought out those sterling qualities of soul and heart, which make her books so intensely human, and characterise all her works, and place her high above contemporary Polish writers. The present volume may stand as a proof of her all-embracing talent.
C.S. DE SOISSONS.
Full text available: An Obscure Apostle, translation of Meir Ezofowicz by Eliza Orzeszkowa
There is also a US translation by Iza Young called Meir Ezofovitch, from which the above illustration is taken.
· Olga Tokarczuk on Anna In in the Catacombs ·
Agnieszka Wolny-Hamkało: When preparing to write “Anna In in the catacombs”, did you research the original sources and the location?
Olga Tokarczuk: Writing this short book was a completely new experience. Firstly, I had a very clear outline of the novel. Of course there were holes in it, in some places it was unintelligible, but nevertheless it was there. I also had the feeling that my writer’s ego would have to be kept on a tight rein, that I’d have to treat myself as an instrument to transmit this story to the present day. But on the other hand to transmit to the present day would be to transmit this ancient myth via my own sensitivity and temperament. There is no other way to do it. In a certain sense my role was to serve the story. I tried to make use of all my knowledge. So I did what for me was a fair amount of ‘research’, although this word is not quite right. It was rather searching, full of enthusiasm, for anything that had a link with Inanna, with the Sumerians, with mythology, with the psychology of myth in general. I funded a little research project of my own and even if only a small amount of it found itself on paper, I still really enjoyed this literary archaeology.
You started as a poet and you still pay very close attention to language. In “Anna In” the language is unusually metaphorical, substantial.
I still think, rather old-fashionedly, that language is always only a tool for opening boxes of images. My temperament is prosaic, I feel as if storytelling has its own energy, which can manage to soar by itself and is sometimes independent of the author. It’s the whole pleasure of writing. I tried to ensure a rhythm was present, which again was part of doing justice to the language of the original text, which was undoubtedly intended to be recited and sung.
The men in your book are not portrayed very encouragingly: cowardly, weak, capricious. The women direct the fate of the world. Again people will conclude that Tokarczuk is a feminist.
We should remember, that this is one of the oldest myths we know of. One could suppose that it relates the transitional moment in the history of civilisation, when the matriarchal structure of society was replaced with the patriarchal. Of course it was a long process. So we have in the story of Inanna the remains of primeval beliefs, when the world was ruled by Goddesses – Magna Mater – and people lived on primitive agriculture. It is said that about 5,000 years before our era a great change took place, that the population grew so much that the environment was not able to sustain them. Shepherding appeared, people started to migrate to find pastures, and met with other peoples, with whom they fought over land. The world of the Goddesses became anachronistic, and couldn’t find a place for itself in this new situation, their role being taken over by more aggressive, male deities. The female deities turned into demons, witches and monsters, and women deprived of divine protection started to fill subordinate functions, and this process has really continued to modern times. In Christianity for 1500 years it was considered that women didn’t have souls. Souls were finally granted to us at the Council of Trent in the 16th century. The myth of Inanna relates the tensions of the former civilisation during a period of transition. And it’s true – my interpretation is in a certain sense an attempt at a feminist restoration.
The book is a futuristic fantasy. Stanisław Lem would be enchanted!
Absolutely, it has aspects of fantasy, of cyberpunk. I associate it with a kind of literary graphic novel. The action is fast paced, the characters are vivid.
What did your imagination draw on to produce such an unusual book?
My inspiration came from the beautiful original Sumerian texts. It’s great literature. My first way into it was originally the Epic of Gilgamesh, the moving story of a failed attempt to overturn the divine order, in which every living thing is condemned to death. Both of these stories, of Inanna and then later of Gilgamesh, show us people who lived thousands of years ago, but differ from us, fundamentally, very little.
· Olga Tokarczuk on Final Stories ·
KATARZYNA KUBISIOWSKA: Can you remember the first events in your life that made you aware of death?
OLGA TOKARCZUK: Nothing dramatic. Old family photos, evidence for people’s absence. I realised that behind every person stands a crowd of the dead, from whom we descend, that the world we know is a continuation of worlds which have passed. What seems to be permanent and concrete, is in reality fleeting and momentary. I would stare for hours at the small old blurry photos in my grandmother’s house. It’s probably a natural start of the meeting with death. What comes first is always the death of others. It doesn’t yet apply to us.
In a sense it does apply to us, but by the process of ageing. In “Final Stories” you describe in detail the bodies of ageing women, which are a kind of inverse image of the eternally youthful, efficient and effective superwoman, or perhaps better to say the ‘supergirl’ defined by modernity.
Life is the most patient preparation for death – the deaths of loved ones, and in the end the constant lessons which our own bodies give. The principal characters are women, but they are above all people. Your reading disturbs me a little. Is it possible that a female writer, writing about women, might be writing about people in general? If I were a man, it would easier to defend the book as universal. The fact that I am a woman puts it in a different light, brings forward different questions and emphasises a different type of interpretation. Questions about women’s literature, about feminism, the body, even if straightforward and innocent, force me to explain myself in terms of my gender, which isn’t asked of male writers. The maleness of literature is accepted as a certainty, as obvious. The culture within which I live is male-centric, it’s a fact which one must simply accept with sadness. A writing woman is continually something out of the ordinary, eccentric.
Coming back to the theme of death, which in “Final Stories” fills every scene. The description of birth recalls dying. A woman looks at the death of her child, later her husband, Maja looks at the death of Kisz and the decaying bodies of turtles. Ida looks at the death of a dog, and this animal death seems to be her death, the dog teaches the human the art of dying.
It is a book about death, I thought of it like this from the beginning. It talks about human rituals in the face of death – not only in the third person, death as something objective, but also the death that touches the second person, of someone close, someone grieved over. You, but in the end your own death. Taking this point of view is also to encompass the other, ‘ordinary’ death. Life is overgrown with death.
Where did the idea come from to show a person’s death in the way it was experienced by Ida?
This idea has a long history. It’s a type of more or less specific instructions for crossing to the other side. We know versions of this from Egyptian and Tibetan literature. In the middle ages it functioned as ars bene moriendi, the art of dying well. In Polish literature it probably never appeared in its pure form, but we remember “The conversation of Mr Polikarp with Death” or “The Complaint of the Dying”, a very strange poem, whose verses start with each letter of the alphabet. I used these forms, somewhat loosely, in the second part of the book. But it’s above all a folk tale, in which the soul of the hero sets out on the road (becoming conscious stage by stage of his own death), and who in the end realises that he is already on the other side. It’s a small, somewhat forgotten literary genre. Forgotten, because death too is dismissed, hidden, reduced to a secret moment, at the most made public in an obituary and a de-ritualised funeral. Few treat death today as a process, a passage, as opposed to some kind of dramatic moment.
In Buddhism, the dead person, for a period after their death is convinced they are still alive. This motif is used in more and more film screenplays such as ‘Jacob’s Ladder’, ‘Mulholland Drive’, ‘The Sixth Sense’, ‘The Others’. Maybe these conceptions are a modern equivalent of the middle-ages ars bene moriendi? Maybe they now give us lessons about dying?
I think so, yes. The popularity of Eastern philosophy changes somewhat the perspective from which we look at many things, which in our culture were neglected, unmentionable or overlooked. Including death. The idea of bardo made us aware, as people of the West, of the depth and sense – how to describe it? – of the culture of dying. Although the Western equivalent of bardo appears in the tales of souls who, after the death of the body, return to the earth in order to avenge wrongs, settle scores, to prepare for the final departure.
Living in the countryside habituates one to death. Here it is easy to see disintegration and transience. People are not afraid of the dead and don’t fear what happens after death. Urban civilisation strips death of its reality, as well as its metaphysical dimension.
But today an inhabitant of a metropolis encounters death daily via the media. It’s full of death, but in a very abstract, again intangible form, as information, as an image. And again it is a distant, other form of death. Death has been fragmented on the one hand into an abstract event, by the media. On the other hand biological death has become dying in hospital, where a person is on a respirator, stoned on drugs. Between the two there is no place for the death of the person, the human, with their past, memories, individuality. Nobody “helps” us to die, nobody teaches this to us. It seems that there is only life, young and healthy, and then suddenly nothing. Old age is always ugly, horrible, deserving of sympathy. Deprived of all dignity. Especially the old age of women.
You employ some fairly eccentric literary devices, at least in ‘Parki’, the second part of “Final Stories”, where letters are traced out in the snow – the message to the world that Petr is dead.
That’s a true story. I often have the feeling that reality is too explicit, even in bad taste because of its arrogance and lack of moderation. Despite appearances, if writers could create reality, it would look so much more balanced and predictable. That’s why it is so difficult these days to write realistically. I heard the story of an old woman tracing the announcement of her husbands death in the snow a few years go. In fact, it was supposed to have happened near Lewin Kłodzki. I decided to keep the location too, which helped me to place the first two parts of “Final Stories” in Kotlina Klodzka.
You raise in this book the problem of reducing suffering. Do you support euthanasia?
Yes. Situations exist which can’t be subordinate to the law. I consider that a person has the moral right to decide the moment of their own death and to die in dignity. I would like to have that right, and I would like others to have it too.
For people of faith euthanasia is a barbaric interference in the divine order.
Not necessarily. Many people of faith support euthanasia. They believe that God created them as free beings, who are responsible of their own choices.
Animals appear in all your books, treated with particular respect. What role do they play in your life?
Travelling companions. Commentators on events. Another viewpoint. Other, new dimensions of closeness and belonging. A wealth of dissimilarities. New languages of communication. Uncommon learning. Everyday humour. Basic, fundamental, peace. Cats – natural meditation. At home, I have a kind of inter-species community which although it’s subject to tensions, manages to co-exist peacefully and companionably. It does one good to be part of something like that. I suspect that we render services to each other which are difficult to define, not only those that are specifically to do with housekeeping. Dogs living with people become humanised, their personality becomes richer. People who are in contact with animals become similarly enriched. It’s a deep mutual learning and connection. Who knows, perhaps it’s exactly animals who can teach us how to die with dignity. I brought this idea into “Final Stories”. But there’s also the case, that for the “internet surfer” the animal world, nature in general, can become something threatening and strange, something horrible.
“Final Stories” is made up of stories about three related women of different ages. All of them have unsuccessful marriages behind them. At first glance this would appear to be the consequence of a “genetic” disposition, that from generation to generation the mother transmits the pattern condemning them to disasters in their private lives. But after a careful reading, in each of these stories we find that it’s not a question of inheritance, but rather a question of irreconcilable differences between the sexes.
I wouldn’t say that they are unsuccessful marriages. I’d rather call them difficult relationships. Easy, happy relationships only exist in Harlequin romance novels.
I don’t think that all the differences between men and women are cultural, but definitely the majority are. They are so strongly beaten into our heads that we take them to be natural. The differences between men and women don’t interest me. Between people, very much so. These are so numerous, they are worth examining. People have, for example, very different political and religious preferences, they can even kill for these reasons, they have dramatically different visions of the world, rhythms of life, tastes. They are different on many levels. A lack of understanding affects the characters in “Final Stories”. The result of this is loneliness, maybe the most widespread feeling today, but also separation, drifting, surfing across life.
I recently watched the film “The Village”. The most fascinating for me was not the horrific aspect, but the life of a small community, cut off from the world, relying on each other, close knit, I envied it – the community was made up of “a place for everyone” whether they were gifted or disabled. I realise that this is to a certain degree a utopian myth applied to times “before”, before industrialisation, two cruel wars, globalisation. And I also realised, to what extent it is still very attractive.
Loneliness in a small world is something to be overcome, to be alleviated. In a wider world without borders – it blurs and dissipates people, they become vulnerable to all kinds of attraction, spin and manipulation, they lose their sense of orientation. Unconsciously they nevertheless need rituals, something that will enable them to face up to death. They perform lame, incomplete rituals, without being aware of it. Because it’s not possible to live in perpetual suspension, a person has to tell their story, define themselves. This is exactly the position of the main character in the last story in the book.
In your early books it’s difficult to detect any traces of your personal experience. In “House of Day, House of Night”, you vividly open the door to your autobiographical sources, and in “Final Stories” there are three characters called Olga. What do they have in common with you?
How would it be possible to write a book without relying on your own experience? It’s a question of referring to it, either directly or indirectly. All of my characters take something from me, are in some sense me. Even if they don’t come out of my experience, they are nevertheless seen through my eyes. Maybe they are presentiments of me, possibilities, potential versions of me. I always understand my writing to be very personal, a very intimate statement directed at the reader, I narrate my world to them and count on them to find a place for it in their world, so we can make it somehow mutual. If I manage to do this, the book lives, if not, it dies. Sometimes it gets through only to a small group.
· Interview with Olga Tokarczuk on Bieguni (‘Runners’) NIKE prizewinner ·
Agnieszka Wolny-Hamkało: You said once that you had an ‘episodic consciousness’ and that the short story was a more natural literary form for you. What is an ‘episodic consciousness’?
Olga Tokarczuk: It’s built like a bee’s eye, it’s made up of individual pictures, which a person then merges together. Neurologists say that we all perceive the world like this. The classical novel is in this context an artificial creation, because it attempts to give linearity to perception.
And so your most recent prose runs in many different directions.
Every time I set out to write a novel, I am aware that it is artificial. So I search out ways of storytelling that seem closer to our experience, our emotions. The way I talk in ‘Runners’ seems realistic to me. That’s how the world looks: made up of individual observations. Of things that don’t fit together. Most of all the world today of a person who is always moving. One has to use a fragmented form, nervous, shattered. I trust the reader. I bet on the fact that they are similar to me, and that they are smart.
Who are the Runners?
A metaphor for the modern traveller. The name ‘Bieguni’ comes from a sect of orthodox Old Believers, who treated movement as a sacred state. Permanently moving, crossing borders meant for them not belonging to anything and an escape from evil, which tries to take away their freedom.
Are you a Runner?
A Runner is a nomad. Maybe it’s the case that we all have within us the memory of our ancestors who were nomadic. And the settled civilisation, within which we build ourselves nests, oppresses people.
For some time now travelling without restrictions has become normal for Poles. How does the identity change of someone who suddenly becomes a traveller?
There have been books written by philosophers, sociologists, and anthropologists on this subject. I have relied on my intuition and participant observation. I’m not talking only about tourism, a tourist is one kind of Runner. For me a better example would be a tramp, and everyone who has fallen out of the stable order. Social, psychological or symbolic. I tried to create a kind of literary monograph of this phenomenon.
What is required in order to be able to travel so spontaneously?
We probably don’t realise how painful the closure of the borders was under communism. We remember the political oppression, the poor standard of living, but this inability to escape has weighed down psychologically on two generations. Today we treat this openness as an exceptional novelty. But after all the world was open up to the First Word War. Now we are really returning to that situation, except the technological ease of travel is far greater. As well as the tourist there are many other kinds of traveller. People who are more interested in “being on the move” than getting to a destination, vagabonds of a kind. Or those who go off to the other side of the world in order to see some particular object, talk for half an hour with someone, to pray in front of a particular statue. This kind of traveller looks down on the tourist, who for them are deplorable representatives of the middle classes. The tourist in turn looks down on the dirty hippy who backpacks through Pakistan without any money.
I have the impression that representatives of the modern tribes of Runners are not fully in touch with reality. They waste their days on air travel, they change their names. They become ghosts. Is this their aim – to be detached from reality?
I think so. This kind of travelling is a deep challenge to the world in which we live, which tries to keep us in place, give us a name, a surname, a social security number and says: your place is here, this is your role. Contesting this world, what Runners call being pinned down, being caught by Satan, they negate the identity created by the expectations of others. On a journey one falls quickly into a “liquid identity”, a person gains freedom from themselves.
That’s disturbing. Fleeing from reality.
What disturbs me is something else – we live under our surnames on this or that street. But nevertheless we are greater than our names, our addresses. Everybody somehow feels this unconsciously. Something small has been given to us, within which we have to live. We are an enormous energy closed up in a nutshell. To travel is to break open this microworld.
Nevertheless this complete detachment, uprooting seems frightening and sad to me. When one is not trying for something, not looking for anything. A feeling of absolute virtuality. One would need to find something to hold on to.
I’ve been in this situation a few times, being nowhere, and there was no sadness in it.
In the book there are reproductions of beautiful maps looking like arteries, nerves, blood vessels.
Maps immediately seemed to be an essential part of the book. As I was writing I had with me many strange and curious maps, which I had discovered in Holland. The transference of a three-dimensional world to flat maps fascinated me. It’s like writing: you try to capture something multi-dimensional, a cornucopia of colours – and to put it on paper, press it into language. This book would not have been possible without maps. They show what a huge metaphysical similarity exists in the structure of what is large and small around us: the macro and micro. This equivalence, which fascinated Renaissance thought, is still not an an idea we are accustomed to in modern thought, despite the great progress in science.
Does modern travel have something in common with the Enlightenment idea of a voyage as a university of life?
These days much more important than acquiring knowledge is seeing things that amaze us. The Enlightenment concept of the acquisition of knowledge has grown stale. What is this knowledge for? Are we going to save it? Zip it and write it to a disk? It’s no longer important what I know, but the meaning of what I know. The books is also about this. What do we get out of the fact that we have found out about Florence? Is something within us changed when we know which architect designed it? These days people should travel in order to see to what extent we are enclosed within our own imagination. That for example four hundred kilometres to the East there are people with a completely different sense of time or think about marriage differently, or declare their love for each other differently. It’s important to see that many of the values we think are absolute are relative, are simply customs.
Are we anthropocentric?
We are. And also xenophobic.
It’s a wonderful thing to send children who have finished school to travel around the world. So that they will see what is different. Knowledge one can pick up from the internet, universities and the well equipped libraries in one’s hometown.
People travel on business or to relax, but your characters travel with, odd, unclear or absurd aims. What drives them?
The demon of movement, the restlessness of the traveller. Why did Columbus, Vespucci, or Marco Polo set off? Maybe they had a rational aim, but in reality they didn’t know what they were supposed to discover. Now we go to the Parises, Jerusalems, Dublins we know from books, myths and films, in order to see if they really exist.
“Runners” tells the story of people you have met while travelling: in air terminals, stations, in foreign towns. You are like a medium, who brings together these stories in a coherent form.
I often feel like that. The role suits me: an ear and an eye, someone undefined, without gender, without an age. Someone who is not too distinct, and that’s why the world trusts them. When you withdraw from your own “I”, you start to see and hear more. When you are too distinct, you see the world through your own filters, which is not bad either, just different.
You wrote that a woman at a certain age becomes invisible, becomes a ghost and can listen into others conversations with impunity.
In our culture women are “visible” only for a certain period of their lives, when they are attractive, according to norms of beauty and attractiveness, “womanly”. After fifty or sixty, they slowly disappear, they fade. Nobody is especially interested in them. Neither glossy magazines, politicians, nor the media. But unseen does not mean – unobservant. It’s a paradoxically privileged role: an outsider, who sees things that go unnoticed, being in the midst of the whole confusion.
Can people tell their stories?
It’s rather that people are told by their stories.
· The Last Supper by Pawel Huelle ·
The Last Supper has been published, available directly from Serpent’s Tail. To coincide with this, we present two interviews with Huelle that appeared in the Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza:
Interview with Pawel Huelle I
Huelle was also recently longlisted for the IMPAC International Literary Prize for Castorp.
All content are copyrighted to © Polishwriting.net Allright Reserved 2017