Posts Tagged ‘Primeval and Other Times’

Olga Tokarczuk: Drive Your Plow Over The Bones Of The Dead

March 14, 2021

   I’ve re-read this one for our book group, and decided to focus on what might be the qualities in Tokarczuk’s writing which make her a Nobel Laureate – not that that particular accolade is a guarantee of anything. You can read my first take on the book here.

The heroine and narrator lives in a remote village in the mountains close to the Polish/Czech border. She immediately comes across as rather strange, for her world-view is deeply dependent on astrological interpretations of events and people, and she has a strong sense of animals having rights in the same way as humans do; as the novel progresses, Tokarczuk succeeds in having us empathise with and eventually respect and like her, as well as see the logic and the sense in such a response to the world.

This world picture is fully developed in the sense that the narrator takes it and us along with her wherever she goes, and she is always philosophising and reflecting on the world and trying to make sense of it in her own terms. Her rage at hunters and killers of animals knows no bounds, and a series of deaths – are they murders? – of locals connected with hunting form the core of the events and the mystery at the heart of the book: our suspicions grow as we wonder if the narrator is connected with them, and we look for gaps in her awareness and her narrative…

I shan’t give any more away. The book is eminently readable, though not gripping in the usual sense. In the end, the qualities I especially admired were the subtle sense of place she creates, the astonishingly conceived plot, the carefully developed characterisation, and the artistry in the writing, which of course I can only appreciate through the work of her excellent translator, Antonia Lloyd-Jones. Lloyd-Jones’ work must have been extraordinarily difficult, as a side strand of the story concerns the narrator and a friend of hers attempting to translate some of William Blake’s verse into English, and comparing versions; that would work in a Polish text, obviously, and here the translator makes it work for English readers too!

It’s well-known that right-wing and religious circles in her country do not like Olga Tokarczuk, and when we read the episode where she heckles the local priest during his sermon on St Hubert’s feast day (patron saint of hunters) it’s easy to see why: her reflections on the sacrament are highly provocative. In the end, taken along with other of her work, including the equally astonishing Flights, I can see why Tokarczuk received the ultimate accolade.

Olga Tokarczuk: Primeval and Other Times

October 29, 2015

51q23Ej2pPL._AA160_Well, this gets my award for the most powerful and moving book I’ve read this year so far…

The simplest way to categorise it is to call it Polish magic realism, I think. These are tales of a mythical Polish village through the troubled twenthieth century, though that’s a very bald description; they are stories, descriptions, reflections and philosophising too. As we meet and follow a series of characters, Tokarczuk also reflects on the nature of the world and our existence in a century which didn’t seem to care about people or the planet.

I’d read her novel House of Day, House of Night about ten years ago, and obviously enjoyed it enough to put this book on my Christmas list…four years ago! It’s another novel about a small place, and I don’t recall a thing about it; that might explain why t took me so long to get around to this one.

In some ways, Tokarczuk’s writing is very ephemeral: one seems to glide or float through the pages, yet the impressions are very powerful and you are irresistibly drawn in to her world; her style is very lyrical, and it does seem to have been beautifully translated. There is an absolutely magical chapter in which a child explains the family treasures she has come across in the drawer in the kitchen table; not only are you drawn further into the child’s world, you create your own version of the drawer at the same time – or at least, I did.

Some of the characters are there throughout the book, some pop up only a couple of times. Chaos begins with the First World War, continues through the reborn Polish nation, erupts again with the Second World War, though not as horrendously as one might expect, except for a dark and vague chapter where Jews are killed, and we cannot tell who the killers really are. Tokarczuk seemed to me to be alluding to those still murky episodes in Polish history which have yet to be owned and fully revealed…

She challenges religion in a number of ways, not aggressively, but through offering new angles on ages-old beliefs, perspectives which the reader is invited to explore and entertain, at least for a while. There are also some curious takes on some well-known Bible stories.

One of the main characters is a boy – hard to describe other than to say that in some ways he is half-witted or mentally different (itself hard to say, given the circumstances of the novel itself) – who is also one of the most learned characters, perhaps the one who I liked the most. And his name is Izydor…

I do like it when I am utterly bowled over by something I did expect to like when I finally read it, but didn’t have such great hopes of.

%d bloggers like this: