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Olga Tokarczuk: Poland’s Nobel laureate

Polish novelist Olga Tokarczuk (pictured above) was on October 10 named the winner of the 2018 Nobel prize for literature. Austrian author Peter Handke, who delivered a eulogy at the funeral of Serb dictator Slobodan Milosevic, was controversially named the 2019 winner.

Tokarczuk is the fifth pole to win the prize.

“I believe in a literature that unites people and shows us how very similar we are, that makes us aware of the fact that we’re all joined together by invisible threads,” said Tokarczuk after hearing the news that she had won the prize. 

The award of the 2018 prize had been postponed from last year because of the “reduced public confidence” that followed rape accusations made against Jean-Claude Arnault, the French husband of Katarina Frostenson, a member of the committee which decides the winner.

Tokarczuk was given the prize for what the committee called “a narrative imagination that with encyclopedic passion represents the crossing of boundaries as a form of life”.

She has long put her success down to the source material her home country provides.

“It’s a great place for a writer,” she said in an interview earlier this year. “Nothing is obvious in Poland, you have to narrate everything afresh.” 

Tokarczuk was born 1962 in the small town of Sulechów, and today lives in Wrocław. Her parents were teachers and her father also served as school librarian. In the library she read pretty much everything she could get hold of and it was here that she developed her literary appetite. 

After studies in psychology at the University of Warsaw she made her debut as a fiction writer 1993 with Podróz ludzi Księgi (The Journey of the Book-People), set in 17th century France and Spain where the characters are in search of a mysterious book in the Pyrenees. 

The book was well received and Tokarczuk was given the Polish Publisher’s Prize for best debut 1993-94. 

Her real breakthrough however came with her third novel Prawiek i inne czasy (Primaeval and Other Times), published in 1996. This subtly built family saga in several succeeding generations is set in a mythical place with strong symbolical impact, while, at the same time, being full of realistic and vivid details. It starts in the year 1914 and deals with the Polish history of the 20th century. Tokarczuk has claimed that the narrative was a personal attempt to come to terms with the national image of the past. The novel is an excellent example of the new Polish literature which emerged after 1989, resisting moral judgement and unwilling to represent the conscience of the nation. Instead it shows a remarkable gift of imagination with a high degree of artistic sophistication.

But the device of a linear fable with an omniscient narrator, as well as the strong metaphysical undercurrent, are abandoned in 1998’s Dom dzienny, dom nocny (House of Day, House of Night). In this rich blend of beautiful and striking images one finds the intention to depict a whole region with many, conflicting cultures, individual fates and perspectives.

Perhaps Tokarczuk’s best-known work however, at least outside of Poland, is Bieguni, written in 2007 and published in English as Flights in 2017). In the latter she is not so much concerned with the landscape of the border as with the phenomenon of border-crossing. The title is taken from the name of an old Russian, gnostic sect whose members believed that constant movement prevents the triumph of the evil demiurge. Even here Tokarczuk is driven by the attempt to contain a multitude of often contradictory perspectives into one whole. In this pursuit she includes old maps and drawings of wanderings that convey an impression of a vast encyclopedia, mirroring a world in constant flight. Her montage of diverse fragments of narrative and essay-like prose is full of memorable reflections and episodes, where the recurring tropes are physical movement, mortality and the meaning of home.

In 2018, Tokarczuk became the first Polish writer to win the Man Booker International Prize, for Jennifer Croft’s translation of Flights.

It is 2014’s Księgi jakubowe (The Books of Jacob) however that is widely considered to be Tokarczuk’s finest work (Croft is currently working on the English translation). 

A 1,000-page epic set on the border of present day Poland and Ukraine its protagonist is the charismatic 18th century sect leader Jacob Frank, a Jewish-born religious leader who led the forcible conversion of Jews to Catholicism. The novel itself was well received, selling 170,000 copies in hardback and winning Tokarczuk a Nike award, very much the Polish equivalent of the Booker prize. But in a subsequent television interview Tokarczuk outraged right-wing Poles by saying that, contrary to its self-image as a plucky survivor of oppression, Poland itself had committed “horrendous acts” of colonisation at times in its history.

She received so many threats that her publisher was reportedly forced to hire bodyguards to protect her.

In 2018 she told The Guardian: “I was very naive. I thought we’d be able to discuss the dark areas in our history,” while also lamenting the fact that it took so long for some of her work to be translated into English.

“Sometimes I wonder how my life would have worked out if my books had been translated into English sooner, because English is the language that’s spoken worldwide, and when a book appears in English it is made universal, it becomes a global publication.”

Tokarczuk revisits the theme of transition in her most recent book to be published in English, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead (first published in Polish in 2009 as Prowadź swój pług przez kości umarłych). 

The main character, Janina Duszejko, lives near the Czech Republic and crisscrosses the border repeatedly. 

“It gave me pleasure, because I could remember the time when it wasn’t possible. I love crossing borders,” says Tokarczuk of the book.