The great unknown

The great unknown

She is probably one of the greatest living writers you have never heard of. Or, if an Anglophone monoglot, one you have had few opportunities to read. Tomorrow’s London Book Fair Author of the Day, Olga Tokarczuk is the biggest star in Poland’s literary firmament, fêted by reviewers and garlanded with a host of literary gongs, including twice winning the “Polish Booker”, the Nike Award, most recently in 2015 for her historical novel, Ksiegi Jakubowe (The Books of Jacob).

In her home country, she combines critical acclaim and commercial success. Tokarczuk is the only multiple winner of the Nike’s Audience Award (there is both the main jury prize and a separate public vote) taking it home four times. Meanwhile, The Books of Jacob is nearing 200,000 hardback units sold in Poland for Tokarczuk’s Krakow-based publisher Wydawnictwo Literackie—a massive haul for a literary novel.

Tokarczuk’s fame in Poland as a public intellectual extends beyond her readership. As a left-of-centre, vegetarian feminist in a macho, hunting-obsessed country increasingly veering to the right politically, this can be difficult. Controversy erupted after she claimed the Nike Award and gave a television interview on The Books of Jacob, saying Poles in the past had been colonisers and committed “horrendous acts”. Readers of the novel knew it dealt with these very themes. It takes place in the 18th century, centring around the controversial historical figure Jakub Frank, a Jew by birth who led a drive to forcibly convert other Jews to Catholicism. Set in the borderlands of current-day Poland and Ukraine, its backdrop is the harsh serf economy the Poles imposed on the native Ukrainians.

Hard-right, ultra-nationalist groups leapt on Tokarczuk’s TV comments and a campaign was waged against her. She received numerous death threats. Wydawnictwo Literackie had to hire bodyguards to protect her and Tokarczuk dropped out of public view for months. “I was very naïve,” Tokarczuk says, reflecting on the furore.

“I thought we would be able to discuss the dark moments in our history. I think the people who made the threats probably hadn’t read my book. But the fact is we did have colonies in the east of Poland, we did have a slave economy there. But this is not common knowledge—or part of our national myth. It goes against the current romanticised view of the government, and much of the country, that Poles have always been victims, never oppressors.”

A great gulf in expectations

The Books of Jacob is not yet available in English, though American translator Jennifer Croft is working on a version, thanks to a PEN grant. Though published widely in many other languages—notably German, Russian and French—only a fraction of Tokarczuk’s work is available for Anglophone readers: House of Day, House of Night (Granta and Northwestern University Press in the US); Primeval and Other Times (Twisted Spoon) and Flights, which Fitzcarraldo Editions will release in May.

With the odd exception, this is not atypical for Polish authors, Tokarczuk notes. “There can be quite simple reasons for this. The English book world is relatively closed to translation, so only a small amount of foreign language work can come in. And you have such a big pool from your own language with the US, the UK, Australia, New Zealand, India...,” she says.

She also argues that there is a huge gulf in sensibility. “The way you read fiction goes back to how you read history. Anglo-Saxons have a view that history is ordered
and chronological, and I think that fed into the development of the realist middle-class novel. You know, the ones you read on your sofa with a nice cup of tea.

“There is no tradition for that type of fiction in Poland—and probably all of Central Europe—as we’ve always felt we can never trust history. We can’t even trust geography: our borders have been fluid, impermanent. So our fiction is not based on story or plot—on order—but it’s more impressionistic, more abstract. It has to exist on many levels. In fact, you are looked down upon in Poland [critically] if your stories are plot-driven.”

Tokarczuk was born in 1962 in the small town of Sulechów in western Poland. Her parents were both teachers of Polish literature and she grew up in “a house full of books—I was crazy for them”. From an early age, she dreamed of being an author, but also had “a romantic notion of helping people”. She studied psychiatry at the University of Warsaw and soon was working in a mental health hospital specialising in treating addiction. After setting up a private practice, Tokarczuk began to realise she might not be cut out for psychiatry. She says: “Maybe it was because I wasn’t really writing, but I was coming to the point where I felt I was much more chaotic and ill than my clients. During sessions I would find myself thinking, ‘You have problems with anxiety, with sleeping? Let me tell you about anxiety—I’ve not slept in days!’”

Her first published work was a poetry collection, but she found her audience with her début novel, 1993’s Podróz Ludzi Ksiegi (roughly, Journey of the Book People), a sort of parable/love story of two book fanatics. She has flitted between themes and genres—historical fiction with The Books of Jacob, a novel disguised as travelogue, a retelling of an ancient Summerian myth, even a thriller with Drive Your Plough Through the Bones of the Dead (which has recently been made into a film by Angnieszka Holland).

“I want every book to be a one-off. I adore Stanley Kubrick, all of his films were different, not just in subject but tonally,” she says. “And, as a writer, that’s what I want to do—challenge myself to do something new. Because if I don’t, writing will become boring.”