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Monday, 09 December 2019

Meet Olga Tokarczuk, the winner of the 2018 Nobel Prize in Literature

The Swedish Academy awarded the prize to Olga Tokarczuk for her "narrative imagination that with encyclopedic passion represents the crossing of boundaries as a form of life.”

Ahram Online , Thursday 10 Oct 2019
Olga Tokarczuk
Writer Olga Tokarczuk is pictured in Wroclaw, Poland, March 7, 2019. Picture taken March 7, 2019.
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The Nobel Prize in Literature for 2018 was awarded to the Polish author Olga Tokarczuk for her "narrative imagination that with encyclopedic passion represents the crossing of boundaries as a form of life.”

Here is a comprehensive biography and bibliography of the Polish author as published by the Swedish Academy:

Olga Tokarczuk was born 1962 in Sulechów in Poland, and today lives in Wrocław.

Her parents were teachers and her father also functioned 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 was awarded the Polish Publisher’s Prize for the best debut 1993-94. Still, her real breakthrough came with her third novel Prawiek i inne czasy 1996 (Primeval and Other Times, 2010).

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, and 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 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 the impressive Dom dzienny, dom nocny from 1998 (House of Day, House of Night, 2002). 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.

Olga Tokarczuk is inspired by maps and a perspective from above, which tends to make her microcosmos a mirror of macrocosmos. As it is stated in her third novel ”Primeval is a village in the midst of universe”. Likewise, myth and reality are intimately connected in House of Day, House of Night, where mushrooms and wine made of wild roses are treated with the same attention as the legend of the martyr St. Kummernis. Migration and expulsion have marked the Silesian landscape that sets the scene. The place appears to be the protagonist of the story, weaving together the multitude of narrated fragments into a rich, epic fresco.

The early inclination to archetypes and Jungian models of interpretation is gradually dissolving in the short stories Gra na wielu bębenkach from 2001 and more forcefully in the novel Bieguni from 2007 (Flights, 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 demiurg. 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 essayistic prose is full of memorable reflections and episodes, where the recurring tropes are physical movement, mortality and the meaning of home.

Tokarczuk never views reality as something stable or everlasting. She constructs her novels in a tension between cultural opposites; nature versus culture, reason versus madness, male versus female, home versus alienation. And this is only possible if both poles are anchored in the narrative.

In the technically more conventional but still very original crime novel Prowadź swój pług przez kości umarłych from 2009 (Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, 2018) metaphysical speculation comes back in parodic form, when the protagonist, also the narrator, is presented as a fanatic animal lover and a fervent astrologist. Considered mad by the people in her surroundings, she is waging war with the male, local inhabitants, a depressingly narrow-minded hunting community. In this feat of ambivalent wit we never know which madness is worst and where the sympathies are invested.

Still, the magnum opus of Tokarczuk so far is the impressive historical novel Księgi Jakubowe 2014 (”The Books of Jacob”). Once more the writer changes mode and genre, and has devoted several years of historical research in archives and libraries to make the work possible. The protagonist is the charismatic 18th century sect leader Jacob Frank, by his adherents proclaimed the new Messiah.

He was a cabbalist and restless seeker beyond spiritual borders, determined to unite Jewish, Christian and Moslem creeds and therefore always on the wrong side of Orthodoxy. It is fascinating how Tokarczuk lets us enter the minds of several persons in this 1000 page long chronicle to give us a portrait of the main character, while he himself is only described from the outside. He was clearly a man of many faces: a mystic, rebel, manipulator and trickster.

While the preeminent modern scholar of Jewish mysticism, Gershom Scholem, in his mighty work on the main lines in Jewish mysticism, avoids Frank’s disturbing persona Tokarczuk on the contrary pays great interest on precisely that: his boundlessness and psychopathic trait of character. Tokarczuk has in this work showed the supreme capacity of the novel to represent a case almost beyond human understanding. But the work does not only portray the mysterious life of Jacob Frank, it gives us a remarkably rich panorama of an almost neglected chapter in European history.

 

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