Vilenica Prize Winner 2013: Olga Tokarczuk



The Polish writer, essayist, and scriptwriter Olga Tokarczuk was born in 1962 in Sulechow, Lower Silesia. She graduated in Clinical Psychology from the University of Warsaw and worked for a while as a psychotherapist after completing her studies, but soon began to focus on writing professionally. She debuted in 1979 with a series of short stories in the Na przełajmagazine and has also published her work in the Wroclaw-based Mandragora magazine and the Życiu Literacki. Her debut novel, Podróż ludzi Księgi (The Journey of the Book People), was published in 1993 and was awarded with the Polish Publishers’ Association Prize. Ever since then, Olga Tokarczuk’s novels and short stories have ranked her amongst the very top of Polish contemporary writers of prose. She is an outstanding narrator, who manages to thrill both critics and readers alike with the innovativeness and diversity of her works in regard to content as well as genre. To date she has published eight novels, two books of short prose, and two collections of essays for which she has received a string of Polish and foreign literary awards. She has won the Nike Readers’ Choice Award no less than four times, and in 2008 was awarded with the premier Nike Literary Award for the novel Bieguni (Runners). Her books have been translated into most European languages. Many of her works have also been adapted for the stage as well as the screen. She conducts seminars on prose fiction as part of the creative writing programmes at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow and at Opole University. She was also one of the initiators of the International Short Story Festival in Wroclaw. Today she lives and works in Lower Silesia.


From the laudation by Jana Unuk

Ever since the publication of her first novel in the early 1990s, Olga Tokarczuk has been a major voice in Polish prose. The time of her literary début, marked by a shift from politically committed literature and essayistic prose to storytelling, from the mythisation of history to personal mythographies, witnessed the emergence of numerous brilliant Polish authors. She has written eight novels: The Journey of the Book People (Podróż ludzi Księgi, 1993), E. E. (1995), Primeval and Other Times (Prawiek i inne czasy, 1996), House of Day, House of Night (Dom dzienny, dom nocny, 1998), The Final Stories (Ostatnie historie, 2004), Anna In in the Tombs of the World (Anna In w grobowcach świata, 2006), Runners (Bieguni, 2007), and Drive Your Plough over the Bones of the Dead (Prowadź swój pług przez kości umarłych, 2009). Her other works include two short story collections – The Wardrobe (Szafa, 1998) and Playing on Many Drums (Gra na wielu bębenkach, 2002) – as well as a book-length essay on Bolesław Prus’ novel The Doll (Lalka), titled The Doll and the Pearl (Lalka i perła, 2000), and a splendid essay collection, The Moment of the Bear (Moment niedźwiedzia, 2012).
The novels by the most eminent Polish woman novelist of today are a living, changing form, a field for ceaseless investigation with no repetition of the formal techniques, while their contents are open to the zeitgeist and problems of the contemporary world. As original reshapings of the Polish novelistic tradition, they reveal the author’s passion for storytelling and for creating new fictional worlds. Yet these worlds are not self-sufficient: describing the contemporary man and his reality, and thus applicable to all of us living here and now, they successfully communicate with their readers, purposefully adapting to the fragmented contemporary consciousness and modern sensibilities. The most striking feature of Olga Tokarczuk’s style is her renunciation of linear, causal narrative, replaced by scenes and tableaux which lend themselves to various interpretations and enable communication at a deeper, psychological level.
Despite the author’s Postmodernist poetics, a major element of her prose is the search for meaning and order in the fragmented, chaotic world of our perception. A need for transcendence which would surpass the individual existence and thus endow it with meaning is manifested already in The Journey of the Book People, the chronicle of an expedition to a remote monastery in the Pyrenees on the trail of a book which reveals the mystery of life. But even in this highly parabolical text, the ultimate, unconditional longing necessarily remains unsatisfied, and the book ends with an ironic twist.
A larger-than-individual experience is likewise communicated through mythic and mythological elements, which run throughout Olga Tokarczuk’s works either as unobtrusive, hidden story frames or as motifs. The author is aware of the cognitive power of myths as repeatable patterns underlying all human stories, a key to understanding the human world. Her Primeval and Other Times presents the creation myth, or, better yet, the creation of a myth emerging before the reader’s very eyes: Primeval is both a Polish hamlet in real time and a mythic place ’in the centre of Creation’. But while Primeval is entirely fictional, the mythisation in House of Day, House of Night is applied in palimpsest-like layers to actually existing places. The myths in Olga Tokarczuk’s works range from the archaic and classical myths occurring in practically all segments of her texts to Adam Kadmon and the golem of the Jewish Kabbalah tradition in Runners, or to the literary myth of Blake’s Land of Ulro in Drive Your Plough over the Bones of the Dead. To the international Myths series, Olga Tokarczuk has contributed the novel Anna In in the Tombs of the World, based on the Sumerian myth of the celestial goddess Inanna, her descent into the underworld and return to the land of the living – the oldest known version of the descent into the land of the dead. The ancient myth is set in a futuristic skyscraper city of reinforced concrete and modern machinery, thus highlighting in a Campbellian manner its own vitality and resonance in the modern psyche. The novel has prompted the invention of an extraordinary poetic style and the introduction of a narrative polyphony in consonance with the poetics of the myth. Moreover, the story about a strong female personality, such as are many of Tokarczuk’s heroines, conveys a feminist message.
Tokarczuk’s works include a pastiche of various novelistic genres, ranging from the picaresque novel to the family saga, initiation novel, crime novel. They are interwoven with nonfiction and memoirs, particularly in the passages giving voice to the first-person narrator, who shares some biographic facts with the author. However, her most typical novel form is what she terms the’constellation novel’. This technique, an original contribution of Olga Tokarczuk to contemporary Polish prose, recalls at first glance a patchwork or collage of short texts (rounded-off or open-ended): stories, motif cycles, reflections, tableaux, etc. At the content level, it enables a grasp of the world’s totality through epiphanies, as in House of Day, House of Night: of day and night, dreams and waking, everyday and virtual reality; of the past, the future, and the present moment; of the masculine, the feminine, and the androgynous element transcending the split between them; of youth and old age, body and psyche, health and illness, life and death. In accordance with the author’s enlarged concept of reality, the ’constellation novel’ complements tangible reality with human psychological reality and dreams. Since Olga Tokarczuk thus radicalises the more general Polish quest for an innovative, ’enlarged’ or ’more capacious’ literary form ideally suited to the content (a quest traceable at least from S. I. Witkiewicz to C. Miłosz, T. Różewicz and others), the most relevant question is the unique contribution of her innovation to this more general stream. Her aim is to make seemingly disconnected images, fragments of narrative and motif, assemble themselves into a coherent whole only on entering the reader’s consciousness. As such, her constellation novel expresses her faith both in the reader and in the cognitive function of literature. This form, most fully developed in her novels Primeval and Other Times, House of Day, House of Night, and Runners, also appears to link the novel to the short story, which is described in one of her essays as ’the consummate form of expression’. Her theoretical insights into the genre are likewise expounded in her essay The Doll and the Pearl, where she introduces an ’observer’ transcending both author and narrator with their knowledge, that is, a narrative category derived from Jung’s concept of selfhood. This theoretical concept is brilliantly embodied in the opening pages of her novel House of Day, House of Night.
Olga Tokarczuk’s major short story collection, Playing on Many Drums, contains nineteen diverse narratives, ranging from a detective story whose course is tampered with and altered by the heroine – a disappointed reader (’Open Your Eyes, You Are Dead’) – to autobiographically coloured prose (’The Scottish Month’) and tales with strong undertones of the grotesque (’The Ugliest Woman in the World’) and fantasy. The last are reminiscent of the Polish novelistic tradition, of Gombrowicz’s Bacacay (’The Island’) or – in the grotesque burgeoning of the reality decribed – of Schulz’s dreamlike, baroquely lavish prose (’The Wisteria’).
The novel House of Day, House of Night is a saga of the places in the author’s life. The reality of the Kłodzko Valley in Lower Silesia intertwines with dreams and fragments of hagiographic narratives about the martyr Kummernis and her hagiographer, the monk Paschalis, both of whom feel uneasy with their bodies and their sex. In the setting of the Silesian countryside, the deserted houses or their ruins still preserve the memory of their quondam German owners and tell the tales of a painstakingly established symbiosis between people who had been damaged by the war in different ways. Deeply etched on our memory is the great migration of the exiles, who travelled by train from Ukraine for days on end to settle in the west of the postwar, post-Yalta-Conference Poland. History is not seen on the big screen of epoch-making historical events but through the lives of ordinary people, as in the forced symbiosis between eastern newcomers and two German women who have remained behind: the former have to share the latter’s kitchen while blaming them for the war which had driven them from their homes. Or in the story of Peter Dieter, an elderly German who wants to show his wife his native place and dies of heart failure after being granted another view of the radiant beauty of his native land.
Olga Tokarczuk’s novels maintain a vibrant tension between rootedness, the human craving for a home and security, and the uprootedness (metaphysical as well) of mankind today. Journey, a constant motif of her writing, is a metaphor perfectly suited to the modern subject, who cannot, or will not, lean on anything solid. This applies particularly to the complex book Runners, which consists of travel impressions, diary entries, and many travellers’ stories. The runners of the title are a symbol of the modern nomads, citizens of the vast ’airport states’: the word denotes a Russian sect who believed that evil and the devil preying from every attachment could be fended off only by constant migration and flight. Like these runners of old, the novel’s protagonists are driven abroad by an unrest often inexplicable even to themselves: they include the not-to-be whaler, Eryk; Annuszka from Moscow, who is fleeing from her husband damaged in the Afghanistan war and her handicapped son, and the wife of Kunicki, who wanders off on the island of Vis. Another motif cycle is the pursuit of thought into the depths of the human body, related to visits to anatomy museums, stories of anatomists and preparators from the 17th century to the present, and ultimately to the human longing for immortality.
The journey motif transforms the whole world into a setting for Olga Tokarczuk’s prose, from her home place to the Croatian coast or the exotic destinations on far-off continents. With great sincerity and courage she inscribes into it such topical social and ethical issues as the attitude to the other and to otherness, the tabooisation of old age, of dying and of death, euthanasia, the philosophy of the body, cloning, ecology, and prevention of cruelty to animals. Rather than competitiveness, which all too often dominates the world and our discourse about it, she values insight and empathy. The novel Drive Your Plough over the Bones of the Dead springs entirely from her protest against the killing of animals for entertainment or profit, but this central issue is deftly embedded in a crime novel overflowing into an acid social satire. The comfortable illusion that the era of committed literature is over was shattered by Olga Tokarczuk’s prose long ago. The essay ’How to Invent Heterotypy – A Social Game’ from The Moment of the Bear expresses her belief that the world is partly a reflection of how we conceive it, that it is open to change, and that it may be changed for the better through the imagination, which is the source of any vision of a better world.

Translated by Nada Grošelj