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We Are Dwelled by Different Spirits, or What Olga Tokarczuk Teaches Us

17.01.2020 - 08:47 update 29.03.2022 - 11:32
Editors: OO
Tags: literaturoznawstwo

We have interviewed Prof. Ryszard Koziołek about the latest Polish Nobel Prize winner.

Olga Tokarczuk received the Nobel Prize in Literature for 2018 on 10 October 2019. The Polish writer is also a winner of International Booker Prize, twice winner of Nike Literary Award and winner of Jan Michalski Prize. She has also been nominated for National Book Award twice.

|Agnieszka Sikora|

Are you surprised that Olga Tokarczuk received the Nobel Prize?

I am, but it’s a nice surprise. When a Polish writer receives the Nobel Prize, we are naturally satisfied, especially if you’re a literary scholar and want the best for the Polish literature. Whatever we think about the Nobel Prize and any related controversies – because Nobel verdicts frequently raise comments and disputes – no other literary prize in the world is equally important. Why is it so outstanding? I think it’s because of the very concept of the Nobel Prize, which is awarded in several fields apart from literature. Its splendour stems not only from the fact that Swedish Academy chooses a particular author, but also that this author belongs to a circle of scientists representing various fields. In this way, literature becomes equal to other ways to understand and describe the world – and this is what makes it so important. This year, it has been recognised that the novels by Olga Tokarczuk, together with the work of physicists, chemists, medicine specialists and economists, explain the world to us in the best and most important way. I’m really happy with that.

The Swedish Academy honoured the Polish writer for “a narrative imagination that with encyclopaedic passion represents the crossing of boundaries as a form of life”. How do you understand this “crossing of boundaries”?

It is important to emphasize the anthropological function of narration. We do not tell because we are writers: we tell because we are humans. Every man uses a tale: not only for entertainment, but rather for the fundamental reason, that is, to explain the world, and particularly to explain reality, whose nature is temporary. There was something first, then it resulted in something else, which had further consequences – this simplest cause-and-effect narrative enables us to understand ourselves, people and the world in temporal course. We are not only a set of present beings, but several instances of present that become arranged in a certain sequence. I am the consequence of what happened before and I’m probably going to have some continuation as well. But perhaps I’m not: this allows us to forecast, plan, predict and create our lives reasonably. Each of us uses imagination to imagine the things we don’t know, e.g. the future, but also the alternative ways of living. However, the capacity of our imagination is limited. If we want to cross the boundaries of our imagination, it is literature that helps us to do it. I think that Tokarczuk was honoured, because she expands this imagination for us and she does it better than other writers do.

Isn’t it true that similarly to science fiction, which de facto does not tell us anything about the future, Tokarczuk, who writes about the past, tells us more about us here and now?

I think so. Actually, Olga Tokarczuk is not the first writer who did it. It was already Romanticism that showed us the past as something which is not closed, but rather alive and – paradoxically – creational, creative and unfinished. The past is also incredibly complex and fundamentally significant for our self-understanding. The more I want to know about myself, the more I want to know about what made me. Tokarczuk presents the past as a patchwork, as something highly diversified and questions the homogeneous model in which confessing Polish identity requires being connected to a single channel of cultural tradition. In The Books of Jacob, the writer shows the world which looks like a rug with various patterns, but when we turn it upside down, we will see torn threads, leading us to different places: the Balkans, Greece, Turkey, Tatars and Jews. And Tokarczuk led her narrative to these various regions, which gave birth to the Polish 18th century culture. It’s a beautiful project.

The Books of Jacob were honoured with Nike Literary Award in 2015, and you wrote in the laudatory address for Olga Tokarczuk that “only literature can deliver speech that I voluntarily consider to be my own, although I know well that it was made for everyone. While reading the awarded book, I had the feeling that these words were written for me only”. Isn’t this a recipe for good literature?

Of course, this is what we want – to read books as if they were written specifically for us. It’s a paradox that is very difficult to capture from the perspective of literary studies. How come that the greatest literature – Shakespeare, Mickiewicz, Kochanowski – is so idiomatic: we read one sentence and we know right away who wrote it? Someone is capable of using the same words that we use, but they can compose and provide them with such an individual quality that it’s unforgettable. At the same time, with all its idiomatic character, such literature becomes universal. To oscillate between finding the language of narrative for everyone, or at least for many, while at the same time maintaining the individuality of language by the writer and individuality of reception by the reader… yes, this is a recipe for brilliant literature; unfortunately, none of the literary scholars who realise that becomes a brilliant writer…

The author said that The Books of Jacob touches on subjects which often go beyond literature, such as social affairs, common history, sense of identity. It tells about strangers and sense of alienation in the world, injustice and the mechanisms which cause various kinds of exclusions, but also about the mechanisms of assimilation, including such that are very costly and destructive. In your opinion, what is The Books of Jacob about?

The Books of Jacob is Olga Tokarczuk’s most ambitious literary project, which goes far beyond literature. It’s a project of writing, according to the author herself, a decent historical novel, in which everything has been checked and compared with the sources. And you can see it. The common sense and reasonable point of view is introduced in the novel with the figure of Benedykt Chmielowski, the first Polish encyclopaedist, author of the most ridiculed book in the history of Polish literature, i.e. the so-called “New Athens”. It’s an interesting read, but a naïve encyclopaedia, which has no accurately defined entries, combines facts with fantasy, sometimes weird and funny stories. They illustrate a certain type of hybrid mentality – proto-Enlightenment intellect that would like to explain the world by means of reason, and at the same time mentality immersed in superstitious, bigoted Christianity, which is no stranger to the influence of magical thinking. Benedykt Chmielowski assumes that the role of an intellectual is to provide people with instruments for organising the world, that is, to tell them how this reality is structured. Obviously, it cannot be successful, because no encyclopaedia can fit the entire world. However, this is the first approach to the world that is shared by us, academics – using science to tell what the world is like and how it works. The second perspective is Messianic and stems from the sense that the world is unmanageable. The good and the evil, the inability to understand why there is so much cruelty and hatred in the world, lead to the conclusion that only God can explain it: not the God we believe in, but the God that comes to the world and explains to us that it all makes sense. And this is the project of Jacob Frank, who proclaimed himself Messiah.

How can we call the literary stream represented by Olga Tokarczuk? And is it possible to say that she represents any stream at all?

She is difficult to categorise, although there have been numerous attempts, and we still keep trying. We have indicated her links with magical realism, with construction of the world where two realms coexist – the real one and the magical one, full of wonders and supernatural events. Tokarczuk has the amazing ability to harmonise these two worlds. She likes mosaic structures, breaks the continuity and coherence of novel narration into pieces or puzzles. I enjoy it, because this shows her courage as a writer deciding to make the things a bit more difficult for the reader, who has to put these pieces together into a coherent image. Thanks to this, her novels are rich and expand our spatial concept of the presented world; they are not just about going from one event to another. However, in the case of Olga Tokarczuk, I wouldn’t try to force her novels into a single definition.

And who are the characters in her books? Alienated, rejected, strangers, different, unable to find a place in the society for themselves… Anything else?

Tokarczuk realises that we love literature mainly because of the characters, and if we remember something permanently, it’s precisely the literary creations. Both in the case of Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead and The Books of Jacob, I have the sense that these novels do not have the main character. Even if Jacob Frank is the major historical figure, at one point he disappears and the novel disperses into dozens, or even hundreds of characters. In this book, Tokarczuk built a world which is interesting, even if the characters do not focus the attention entirely on themselves. Her novels make us think about people that we would otherwise not pay attention to, that we disapprove of, that are funny, that we sometimes find repulsive or dislike them because of their looks, way of speaking or strange behaviour. Thanks to literature, these weirdities become important and interesting. Tokarczuk leads us to these characters and triggers our empathy.

Olga Tokarczuk said: “I resist fashion. I never buy anything fashionable and I don’t read fashionable books”. The Nobel Prize will probably make it trendy to read her novels, which, in a way, will strip them of their niche, intimate and unique nature…

I think that Tokarczuk is one of the contemporary writers who found their readers very quickly. She is perhaps the only non-genre writer who has built the army of loyal readers. This happened for many reasons: she introduced the subjects of ecology, equality and feminism in her literature very early. Speaking of feminism in Tokarczuk’s novels, it is very distinctive: deeply immersed in the realm of myths and fairy tales. The author urges her readers to explores the symbols of femininity based on more traditional forms: religious, cultural, traditional social roles; at the same time, she re-evaluates these values. The feminism of her novels does not mean that women break off from the traditional roles of housewives, mothers of wives; they rather draw from them power and force, which is sometimes dangerous and sometimes magical. Tokarczuk shows what femininity is and how it can be manifested in the modern world. It goes without saying that the Nobel Prize is a gigantic boost, but one must somehow continue to live after the Nobel Prize as well. I think that Tokarczuk is such an experienced writer, with a dozen or so novels already published, that she’s not going to wonder like a debutant whether her next book will be good enough.

Which novel by Olga Tokarczuk is your favourite?

I really enjoy Primeval and Other Times, although it isn’t the most highly valued book by the experts. I like House of Day, House of Night, because it shows the writer’s courage, when she uses certain toposes, such as the symbol of the house, and gives these figures a new life. She is capable of translating them into the language of modernity. She shows how an individual story intertwines with the universal history, that all our houses are haunted… by those who lived there and those who might have never lived in them, but they lived in this land, so we have them under the floor. She showed us in a smart way that thinking of ourselves as a cohesive identity, as human beings carved out of a single cultural or ethnical piece, is simply rubbish. We are dwelled by different spirits. The figure of a house haunted by both good and evil spirits is splendidly carried out. I like Flights because of the renewed concept of travelling, which has presently gained a new dimension. A characteristic feature of our times is a sort of instability and mobility. I’m very keen on airports, so the airport literature is close to me. I’m fascinated by the possibility to move to a different world within a couple of hours. I appreciate The Books of Jacob. I used the word “appreciate” on purpose, because it’s not a likeable book. This book is a challenge for the reader – not only because of the volume; its structure and multiplicity of narrators are something fascinating. I’m very curious of Tokarczuk’s new novel. I’m also curious about her Nobel speech and lecture. I think that the writer still has a lot to say.

Thank you very much for the interview.

This article is from Gazeta Uniwersytecka UŚ (University of Silesia Magazine), issue: no. 3 (273) December 2019.

prof. dr hab. Ryszard Koziołek
Prof. Ryszard Koziołek

Photos: Agnieszka Szymala


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