September 17, 2018
Sep 17, 2018
14 Min read time
Novelist Olga Tokarczuk, winner of the Booker International Prize, presents a multicultural Poland, to the ire of the Polish far-right.
“Flights . . . got a new lease on life,” Olga Tokarczuk told a Polish journalist in May after her novel was awarded the Man Booker International Prize. Published in Polish in 2007, the novel would not be translated into English for almost a decade, with Tokarczuk encountering significant difficulty finding a Western publisher who would take a gamble on it. The International Prize is intended to promote lesser-known, non-Anglophone authors in the Anglophone reading market. In Tokarczuk’s case, such publicity was both much needed and well deserved. Long one of Poland’s most celebrated authors—her novels, among my family’s favorite Christmas presents, have twice won her Poland’s highest literary honor, the Nike Award—Tokarczuk had remained virtually unknown outside her homeland.
Tokarczuk’s novels portray a religiously plural, multilingual, multiethic Poland totally opposite the toxic nationalism of the Polish far-right. For this she has received death threats.
Tokarczuk’s obscurity in the English-speaking world must be understood in context. The international publishing trade tends to look to Polish writers for narratives about Eastern Europe, but not much besides. Given this, it is paradoxically difficult for a Polish writer as jet-setting and bohemian as Tokarczuk to attract interest (only Twisted Spoon Press, Northwestern University Press, and Fitzcarraldo Editions had published her in English before Flights was picked up by Penguin). This view of Polish arts and letters as myopic both at their worst and at their best, it must be said, is not particular new, and stems in part from Poland’s prolonged economic and cultural isolation from Western Europe. During Tokarczuk’s youth, Poland often seemed stuck in an earlier socioeconomic period, slowly catching up to its Western neighbors after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Its internationally renowned literary voices, such as Czesław Miłosz, in some ways reinforced this view, fascinating their readers by describing increasingly claustrophobic and isolated Soviet daily life. The wave of migration that followed 1989 was linked in the minds of Western observers and Eastern Europeans alike with waves of Slavic blue-collar workers striving to escape this past by assimilating to their adopted countries’ capitalist ways.
Unlike either of these constituencies, Tokarczuk does not seem to have ever felt trapped in Poland. Born in 1962 and originally trained as a psychologist, she graduated from college toward the end of the Soviet Union without strong literary ambitions. It was not until some years later that she became interested in writing, during her first trip abroad to London. Shortly thereafter, Tokarczuk wrote her first short stories. However, this is not a tale of a former-Soviet writer longing to decamp to the West. Back from London after just a few months, Tokarczuk set up her home in a small village in southwestern Poland. While she continued to travel, she did so as a temporary visitor or tourist. Responding to the recently changed political climate, Tokarczuk also undertook a different kind of itinerancy, within Poland itself. In newly opened archives and newly liberated academic conversations, she caught glimpses of a historical Poland that was different both from the backward, disconnected province that local liberals feared it had become, as well as from the pure, self-created homeland that the rising nationalist movement claimed it to have always been. Religiously plural and multilingual, the historical Poland Tokarczuk discovered was a territory where many cultures and peoples—Polish, Lithuanian, Ukrainian, German, Russian, Cossack, and Ottoman, Muslim, Jewish, Protestant, and Catholic—negotiated with each other, while also coexisting with forms of pagan folk culture and magical thinking older than any of them.
Tokarczuk’s prose breathes with the newfound freedom of this double historical and geographical expansiveness. The trajectories she follows are whimsical and witty, and often relish subverting her Polish readers’ sense of their past and present. Her plots develop, with enthusiasm and giddiness, by overlaying words, images, and figures whose coexistence on adjacent pages in itself feels like an intellectual revelation. Tokarczuk’s development as a writer could be described as a gradual coming to awareness of, and sophistication about, this style of thinking, of which Flights is arguably the first fully formed, mature expression.
Tokarczuk’s characters jostle uneasily between a desire for freedom and familiarity; between a life open to contingencies and one whose rewards come from stable habits and patterns.
Many of Tokarczuk’s most celebrated works are parable-like historical fictions. Her first such book, Podróż ludzi księgi (The Journey of the People of the Book, 1993), is a playful, erudite romp through the cultural history of seventeenth-century France. Her subsequent books focus on the multicultural past and present of Eastern Europe. To invoke the confusions and contradictions—but also the utopian potential—of interpenetrating cultures, Tokarczuk often combines historical precision with magical realism. One of her novels, E.E. (1995), imagines a psychic German-Polish woman growing up in Breslau (Wrocław) on the eve of World War II. Around this character, Tokarczuk spins a narrative of cultural forgetfulness that is equal parts Gunter Grass and Patrick Modiano. Another novel, Prawiek i inne czasy (Primeval and Other Times, 1996), describes the twentieth-century fate of a Polish village but is told from the perspective of the village’s guardian archangels.
Flights and the subsequent Księgi Jakubowe (The Books of Jacob, 2014)—which will appear translated into English by Jennifer Croft in 2019—offer the best introduction to Tokarczuk’s work, showing her at her most stylistically refined. Spanning more territories and themes, and longer time periods, than most of her other novels, both books are major aesthetic projects that reach toward a general account of the subject position and view of history, a goal toward which her earlier works point with more modest gestures.
• • •
The plot of Flights is so fragmentary that at times it reads more like a collection of short stories. Dozens of narratives, some of them recurrent, intertwine in a seemingly random pattern. The first-person narrator is a woman who travels frequently, seemingly without encountering gendered or nationalist harassment. She watches others closely but herself goes mostly unremarked, although she sometimes imagines that, three rows behind her, a copassenger is quietly writing her story. This narrator is apparently so used to itinerancy, and attracts so little attention, that she does not need a room of her own to escape outward disturbance. Her writing takes place, instead, “on trains and in hotels and waiting rooms. On the tray tables on planes.” Far from being interrupted by the voices of her surrounding travelers, she is buoyed by them. She relishes the contingencies that briefly bring them together and the shared norms to which their modes of transport constrain them:
A woman named Ingibjörg was traveling along the prime meridian. She was from Iceland, and she began her journey in the Shetland Islands. She complained that it was, of course, impossible to travel in a straight line, since she was totally dependent upon roads and ship routes and train tracks. But she was trying to stick to her guns, continuing south, maneuvering along the line as best she could, in a zigzag.
She talked about it so vividly and so enthusiastically that I didn’t have the courage to ask her why she was doing it. Although the answer to that kind of question is more or less always: Why not?
There is an obvious privilege to this subject position, which Tokarczuk acknowledges; the ease with which the protagonist mingles with the implicitly white populations she visits also betrays the generally westward direction of her travels. Yet within the seemingly smooth functioning of international cosmopolitanism, Tokarczuk seeks out undercurrents of restlessness, divergence, and strangeness. What makes people move, and how far can we actually escape from the selves we were born into? And how do the restive, intellectually and geographically migratory beings with whom her narrator identifies situate themselves relative to the surrounding populations of homebodies and traditionalists? Flights seeks out bridges between the concepts of cosmopolitanism and cultural hybridity; between discoveries of affection and curiosity toward unknown cultures, and toward the intrinsic multiplicity of one’s own place of origin.
Tokarczuk’s narrator spends most of her time on airplanes, from which (and from the global escapism they connote) derives the English title. The characters whose stories she tells—or which simply interrupt her voice without warning—take many other modes of transport as well, some contemporary, some antiquated: trains, buses, carriages, carts, river barges. The Polish title of the novel, Bieguni, refers to the oldest kind of travel, the one done on foot. It is the name of a radical mystical sect from eighteenth-century Russia whose proponents believed that sin had to be escaped not only mentally, but also physically through constant itinerancy, literally walking or running from one place to another. In Polish, the word bieguni evokes the verb biegać, to run, but also biegun, the geographical pole. The term thus captures both the near-abstract vastness of Flights and its paradoxical materialism, the way in which—despite and within its globetrotting—it remains tied to very particular objects and places, as committed to traveling in search of novelty as it is to digging into one’s imperfectly known origins.
Tokarczuk provides an early intimation of this paradox in her narrator’s description of a childhood memory of the Oder River:
It wasn’t a big river, only the Oder, but I, too, was little then. It had its place in the hierarchy of rivers, which I later checked on the maps—a minor one, but present, nonetheless, a kind of country viscountess at the court of the Amazon queen. But it was more than enough for me. It seemed enormous. It flowed as it liked, essentially unimpeded, prone to flooding, unpredictable.
On the facing page is a beautiful vintage illustration from a geography book in which the Oder is pictured alongside other great rivers of the world. The image lifts the narrator’s hometown river out of its immediate context, imagining it as a small version of a generalized force of nature, an intimation of an “essentially unimpeded” freedom. Tokarczuk’s mention of the Oder also carries political undertones for Polish readers: the river marks much of the border with Germany. Yet straightened out and aligned with other rivers, from deltas down to sources, these major natural and geopolitical forces seem as fragile as children’s braids, keeping this local charge and its global context in semi-comic suspension.
Flights suggests that travel offers ‘a promise that perhaps we will be born anew now, this time in the right time and the right place.’ To none of us, though, is such full rebirth actually given.
Echoing such visual balancing acts between the local and the global, few of the characters in the interlocking stories Flights tells are perpetually restless. Like many of us, they jostle uneasily between a desire for freedom and familiarity; between a life open to contingencies and one whose rewards come from stable habits and patterns. In successive stories, characters idealize or demonize, pursue or flee either of these options, for reasons that range from fatigue to madness to fear. One of the travelers falls into a fugue state and disappears from sight while her husband searches for her frantically, their marriage falling apart under the pressure of her unexplained withdrawal. Yet another is a scientist who ventures, Odysseus-like, into the arms of an ageing Calypso who offers him access to her deceased husband’s world-famous taxidermy specimens in exchange for his settling down as her lover. A third, the wife of a famous professor, accompanies her husband on a recurrent lecture cruise around the Greek islands and watches him die of a stroke in the midst of planning another trip. A nineteenth-century traveler smuggles Chopin’s heart back to Poland under her skirts, accompanied by a group of rowdy opera singers; an eighteenth-century character writes letters to a king who refused her African father a proper funeral and resting place. Separated by line breaks, these stories harmonize with each other obliquely and unexpectedly. The narrator at times seems conscious of all or at least some of them; at other times, she seems to be just one voice among many. This ambiguity reproduces formally the novel’s themes of imperfect, but also never fully absent, attachments. Flights’ semi-fragmentary structure seems inspired in part by the experience of overhearing shreds of conversations at busy transport hubs, and in part by the practice of gathering newspaper clippings or literary commonplaces.
Like readers of Edward Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, we consequently meander through a wildly diverse catalog of the many shades of human experience—related not to sadness, as in Burton, but to travel. To all and any of us, Tokarczuk suggests, travel offers “a kind of promise that perhaps we will be born anew now, this time in the right time and the right place.” To none of us is such full rebirth actually given. Instead, like her young narrator in one of the book’s opening sections, we dash ourselves against the limits of our never-quite-satisfying attachments, as we do against the bounds of embodiment itself:
That evening is the limit of the world, and I’ve just happened upon it, by accident, while playing, not in search of anything. I’ve discovered it because I was left unsupervised for a bit. I realize I’ve fallen into a trap here now, realize I’m stuck. I’m a few years old, I’m sitting on the windowsill, and I’m looking out onto the chilled courtyard. The lights in the school’s kitchen are extinguished; everyone has left. All the doors are closed, the hatches down, shades lowered. I’d like to leave, but there’s nowhere to go. My own presence is the only thing with a distinct outline now, an outline that quivers and undulates, and in so doing, hurts. And all of a sudden I know: there’s nothing for it now, here I am.
• • •
‘We have come up with this history of Poland as an open, tolerant country, as a country uncontaminated by any issues with its minorities. Yet we committed horrendous acts.’
Księgi Jakubowe (The Books of Jacob) continues Tokarczuk’s preoccupation with hybridity and belonging in a different key. It will be a pleasure to see how Croft translates this epic narrative, small parts of which have already begun to appear online. It will also be fascinating to see how the broader international public responds to it. The book comes to nearly a thousand pages in the original Polish. Told from a variety of perspectives, by a dozen character-narrators, it recounts the only partly fictionalized adventures of Jacob Frank. An eighteenth-century Jewish man born in Poland who grew up in Romania and the Ottoman Empire, Jacob travels around Eastern and Central Europe fleeing detractors and accumulating proponents, as he seeks to establish himself as the new Jewish Messiah, the reincarnation of the earlier Sabbatai Zevi. He adopts elements of Catholicism and Islam into his teachings, and temporarily converts to both these other faiths, which gets him into trouble with Catholics, Muslims, and Jews. By turns beloved and reviled by his companions, admired for his charisma and hated for his narcissism, Jacob becomes for Tokarczuk a vehicle to explore a slew of questions about interfaith dialogue, the viability of free love, the international systems of patronage that support thinkers and artists, and the purpose of amassing bodies of cultural and scientific knowledge.
Księgi Jakubowe pointedly reaffirms the importance of Jewish culture to Central and Eastern Europe; it also reminds its readers of the role Polish people in particular played in the gradual suppression of the region’s multiculturalism. In the context of present-day Polish politics, it thus reads as an implicit rebuke of the white ethno-nationalism that, as in much of Europe, now threatens to grab the reins of government. Tokarczuk’s unapologetic distaste for the Polish far-right has gotten her into considerable trouble. Indeed, the response from the right has been at times so unhinged that her publisher, fearing for Tokarczuk’s life, has had to hire bodyguards to protect her. Croft, Tokarczuk’s English translator, published a short essay about a 2015 incident—which followed Tokarczuk winning the Nike for the second time—to bring attention to the extreme conditions under which the author now lives and works.
I turned to the Polish press in search of some explanation for this sudden outpouring of hate, absolutely unprecedented in Tokarczuk’s longstanding and distinguished career. I found an explanation in Tokarczuk’s post-awards interview, in which she said, among other things, ‘We have come up with this history of Poland as an open, tolerant country, as a country uncontaminated by any issues with its minorities. Yet we committed horrendous acts as colonizers, as a national majority that suppressed the minority, as slave-owners and as the murderers of Jews.’
The terms of this debate—in the course of which many prominent Eastern Europeans, including Svetlana Alexievich, came to Tokarczuk’s defense—might seem less relatable, almost provincial, when compared to the cosmopolitanism of Flights. But in many ways, the themes of Księgi Jakubowe are even more internationally pressing than those of Tokarczuk’s Booker-winning volume, as we see the near entirety of the West fall under the spell of extreme nationalism. History, Księgi Jakubowe reminds us, does not offer clean narratives of our origins and cultural motivations. It hides pockets of utopian generalization where one might least expect them; it can influence and inspire us not only through its victors, but also through its half-abandoned projects and roads not taken, reminding us both of our roots and of our homelessness in spite of them. One can only hope that, buoyed by the rising ambition of this most recent work and the acclaim of the Booker, Tokarczuk’s treatment of such issues will continue to grow in complexity and scope—and that the larger literary world will keep on listening.
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September 17, 2018
14 Min read time