Breaking the canon: Olga Tokarczuk’s ‘constellation’ writing style

Winner of this year’s Man Booker International Prize for her book Flights talks about Poland, Ireland and the myth of national purity

Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk: her writing  moves across topics and genres but all the time is informed by her deeply ethical engagement with human beings. Photograph:  Beata Zawrzel/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk: her writing moves across topics and genres but all the time is informed by her deeply ethical engagement with human beings. Photograph: Beata Zawrzel/NurPhoto via Getty Images

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A waiting room in a hospital in Poland. Olga Tokarczuk, Poland’s foremost contemporary writer, is there for a routine medical examination. She describes to me later how she began to think that “we know so much about planets and the universe and small particles and we do not know anything about the inner state of our own bodies, we do not know about this microcosm we have inside our skin”.

The thought is not untypical. The winner of this year’s Man Booker International Prize for Flights has a mind as agile as her singular and distinctive prose. In Flights the reader is brought from 17th century Flanders to 18th century Vienna and to 19th century Paris, while the subject matter ranges from techniques for preserving body parts to the advent of travel psychoanalysis (“I am what I look at”).

In her most recent book to be published in English, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, 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.”

Tokarczuk tells me that her inspiration is Stanley Kubrick, “every time telling something different in a different way” and that to be creative is not “to stay with what you did already, but to be on the move even if this movement is between genres, subjects and so on”.

Tokarczuk, born in Sulechów, Poland in 1962, first came to the attention of the wider English-speaking public with the publication of House of Day, House of Night, which was written in 1998 and shortlisted for the International Impac Dublin Literary Award in 2004. The work already bore the distinctive mark of her “constellation” style as she moves across topics and genres but all the time informed by her deeply ethical engagement with human beings and their vulnerabilities.

Voiceless creatures

Tokarczuk describes Drive your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead as a “book about pain” and sees Janina as a spokesperson for animals, as Tokarczuk says, “these voiceless creatures” who “have this ability to feel pain”. In thinking about Janina, Tokarczuk wanted “a system of thinking that wouldn’t be official in some way, an alternative system of understanding”. A chance meeting with an amateur astrologer at a party gave the Polish writer the idea for the dissident system she was looking for. However, it was not Janina’s interest in the stars but the defence of animals which got Tokarczuk into trouble. When a film version of the book was premiered at the Berlin film festival it was denounced by sections of the Polish press as “a deeply anti-Christian [work] that promoted eco-terrorism”.

In her most recent novel, The Books of Jacob, which will be published in English next year, Tokarczuk looks to the history of the charismatic Jewish leader Jacob Leibowitz Frank and his fascinating journey through Christianity, Judaism and Islam in 18h century Poland. Her critical remarks on what she saw as self-serving images of Polish victimhood led to threats from right-wing extremists and for a time she was assigned armed bodyguards. Tokarczuk, however, believes that the sales of The Books of Jacob in Poland (it has already sold more than 170,000 copies in hardback) show that there is a nostalgia for another version of Poland, “we can feel in Poland a kind of phantom pain for lost multi-ethnic territories”. She sees the “project of a mono-ethnic Poland as a nation as paradoxically designed by the Communists”, a notion which has been adopted uncritically by their ultra-nationalist opponents. She feels “even unconsciously Polish people are interested in this golden age of Polish multi-ethnicity, multilingualism.”

Tokarcczuk believes that Polish geography subverts the myth of national purity. “There is no such thing as a clean blood, a pure blood. We are living here in the centre of Europe, on the stage, in the corridor of Europe. It’s impossible to be ethnically pure.”

‘A sort of craziness’

On a trip to Ireland a number of years ago Tokarczuk noted that the Irish and Poles “have many things in common”. A troubled relationship with a larger neighbour, the influence of Catholicism and a tendency “not to trust reality too much”. She sees as a shared point of reference in modern Irish and Polish writing “a sort of craziness” which involves among other things, “a tendency to experiment” and a desire to always “transgress the borders of language”. The memory of historical displacement, of fractured territories and languages, means inevitably she feels for Irish and Polish writers alike a desire to challenge or break all the “norms and canons”.

Making this transgression cross into English is the work of Tokarczuk’s two main translators in English, Jennifer Croft and Antonia Lloyd-Jones. She enjoys a close relationship with her translators and was delighted that Antonia Lloyd-Jones was able to translate Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead. She explains, Antonia is “a woman, my age” and “she’s a little bit extravagant”. For these reasons and the fact that Lloyd-Jones has a “kind of dark humour, very British”, she “was the perfect voice, the perfect English voice of Janina Duszejka”.

Gender is a recurring preoccupation for Tokarczuk, not just in terms of the potential empathy of her translators but in the sensitivity throughout her writings to the slights and affronts to female characters, who are often dismissed as intrusive, opinionated or intemperate. Part of Tokarczuk’s overriding concern with the necessity to use language with care and affection is her fear of the way in which “the social opinion of people is fragile” and that “my very sour and bitter experience is that we are so weak against such a manipulation”. Her writing, to the contrary, in its triumphant engagement with the variousness of experience and its depictions of the resilience of put-upon humans, offers firm and unyielding resistance to such manipulation.

Michael Cronin is 1776 Professor of French in Trinity College Dublin and director of the Trinity Centre for Literary and Cultural Translation

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