The words of Olga Tokarczuk

By Julia Bąk.

October 10th turned into a day of celebration for Poland, as Olga Tokarczuk was awarded a Noble Prize in literature. Although widely appreciated – already laureate of The Man Booker International Prize 2018 and double laureate of Poland’s most prestigious literary award, The Nike Literary Award – for Poland’s political right, she remains a blemish to the world of literature.

Since 2016, I have felt like I experience my life in translation. After the surge in populist movements all over the world, as well as in my home country Poland, it was as though words I thought familiar had been taken away from me and stripped of their meaning. Words such as patriotism, truth, us and them were all being used with connotations I had not seen them with before, leaving me overwhelmed by feelings of detachment and isolation. When Olga Tokarczuk, with her strong, independent and brave prose, received a Noble Prize in literature, I felt it as a personal victory – not only because she is one of my favourite writers, but also because of her descriptions of reality, ever truthful and straightforward regardless of the hatred she faces from the “right” side of Poland. In this article I would like to look closer at the words themselves as used by Olga Tokarczuk, as I feel they embody values often lacking in both my country’s and the world’s mentality nowadays.

“Olga Tokarczuk-9739” by Harald Krichel, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

In The Books of Jacob, which is considered by many to be Tokarczuk’s opus magnum, she tells the epic story of the cult headed by Jacob Frank. Over almost a thousand pages, Tokarczuk guides us through XVIIIth century Poland where many faiths and nationalities intertwine. Although awarded the most prestigious Polish literary award, this book sparked numerous controversies. Describing Poland as culturally diverse and uncovering the unknown parts of its history brought to the forefront many unflattering aspects of Polish national identity. After interviews with the author, in which she encouraged facing the ugly truths about our past, numerous right-wing representatives could not hide their outrage, accusing her of being ashamed of Polish culture and of propagating “anti-Polish lies” abroad. The Books of Jacob shattered Poland to pieces, pieces that fell into distinctly opposing sides. For me, on top of being a literary masterpiece, this book is an example of Tokarczuk’s extreme bravery, not only in facing the past but also in starting a discussion which many countries would rather avoid – one of the days long gone, but this time without glorification.

Another extraordinary piece of work by Tokarczuk encourages us to reconsider the common societal perception of human nature. Drive Your Plow Through the Bones of the Dead, with its title derived from the poetry of William Blake, is an oneiric tale set in the planes of Southern Poland. Although this piece can be seen as an innovative take on criminal novels, the story actually conveys universal morals of human nature and portrays the artificial divide we, as a society, set between the values of animal life and human life. As we follow the main character – an older woman living in a secluded area close to nature – we see the world through her eyes and come to realize that it is full of hypocrisy and falsehood. In a sense, the book’s narrative is somehow reassuring amidst our current state of climate crisis denial and “post-truth”. And again, much criticism came from the political right. Nevertheless, Tokarczuk succeeded in making us no longer feel alone on the secluded island of truthful sanity.

The words of Olga Tokarczuk can be valued not only for their bravery and truth in our world of constant denial, but also for their defiance against easy generalizations. Through her prose, rich and imbued with meaning, she attempts to navigate the depths of human life, of the relationships we have with each other, all whilst questioning our nature and the reason behind our lives. Despite her extensive use of poetic prose, Tokarczuk does not fear the naturalistic and unromanticised aspects of life, at times describing reality with positive scrutiny. Attention to detail and authenticity are prominent in the way she conducts research, and she portrays XVIIIth century Poland with the accuracy of a historian. What is strikingly paradoxical is that although she has been judged “anti-polish” for her raw portrayal of our culture, her work can be said to constitute the most accurate representation of our history and identity. The shape of a human as described by her prose, although rough around the edges and visually unappealing, is the truth we are sometimes scared to see.

In that sense, Olga Tokarczuk’s books are always “untranslated” – they are not wrapped in the foil of delusions with which we like to cover our identity, history or reality. I truly believe that the courageous honesty she exhibits in her work is a value so urgently needed today, as we face troublesome questions and truths about ourselves, both past and present. By using “untranslated” words, according to their true meaning, we can muster the courage to face the world as it really is.

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