BY Helen Charman in Profiles | 16 OCT 19

Nobel Laureate Olga Tokarczuk: An ‘Archaeologist of the Collective Psyche’

The prolific Polish writer has a complicated relationship to nationality

BY Helen Charman in Profiles | 16 OCT 19

Portrait of Olga Tokarczuk, 2019. Courtesy and photograph: Sascha Schuermann/AFP via Getty Images

Last weekend in Wrocław, the largest city in the Silesia region of western Poland, public transport was free for any passenger carrying one of Olga Tokarczuk’s books. The prolific writer splits her time between the city and Krajanów, a village on the western border with the Czech Republic and the free rides were in tribute to the announcement on Thursday 10 October that Tokarczuk had won the 2018 Nobel Prize in Literature. The announcement was delayed by a year due to a split in the Swedish Academy that awards the prize, in part because of rape allegations against Jean-Claude Arnault, the husband of then-member Katarina Frostenson. The 2019 prize was revealed simultaneously and was awarded to Peter Handke, an Austrian writer who ‘publicly suggested that Sarajevo’s Muslims had massacred themselves and blamed the Serbs, and denied the Srebrenica genocide’, a decision that has faced significant criticism. The prize has also proved controversial for its continued favouring of European writers.

Flights (2007, trans. 2017) was only the third of Tokarczuk’s novels to be published in English, but her prolific career in Poland spans 30 years – her first book, the poetry collection Miasta w lustrach (Cities in Mirrors), came out in 1989 – and many novels, as well as short stories; she has twice won Poland’s prestigious Nike award for literature. In the UK, her work has been championed by the independent publishing house Fitzcarraldo Editions, founded in 2014 by Jacques Testard, which publishes innovative fiction in English and in translation. Fitzcarraldo also published Antonia Lloyd-Jones’s translation of Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead (2009) in 2018, and ‘coming (not that) soon’ is Croft’s translation of her 1,000-page historical epic The Books of Jacob (2014).

Olga Tokarczuk, Flights, 2007/2017. Courtesy: Fitzcarraldo Editions

Tokarczuk, who also won the Man Booker International Prize in 2018 for Jennifer Croft’s English translation of Flights, has a complicated relationship to nationality. Although fiercely loyal to the western part of the country where she lives, the newly-minted Nobel laureate frequently causes controversy in the Polish media. Poland’s right-wing political establishment – the ‘semi-authoritarian’ Law and Justice party won a second term in Sunday’s national elections – wields significant control over public broadcasting. In 2014, Tokarczuk’s Polish publisher was forced to hire her bodyguards after she inspired a violent response by suggesting Poland had itself been an historic oppressor and coloniser. In 2015, the xenophobic Nowa Ruda Patriots Association demanded her honorary citizenship of the town be revoked for her perceived tarnishing of Polish understandings of history. Last year, after Agnieszka Holland’s Pokot (Spoor, 2017), an adaptation of Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, premiered at the Berlin Film Festival, the Polish media declared it both anti-Christian and promoting eco-terrorism.

Such an instrumentalized reading of Tokarczuk’s work is not surprising, coming as it does from the authoritarian right, but it performs a near-total flattening out of the meandering, peculiar, wide-ranging attentiveness of her work. Throughout her fiction, archetypes and metanarratives are subverted and reformed, both in the ‘constellation novels’ like Flights that draw temporally and spatially disparate narratives together, and in the rewriting of the tropes of detective fiction that occurs in the more formally traditional narrative of Drive Your Plow. Despite her assertion in a 2018 interview that, unlike English novels, her work and the work of central Europe more generally tends toward the non-linear because it is not ‘rooted in psychoanalysis’ but is ‘thinking in a mythical, religious way’, the influence of the Jungian psychoanalysis she first encountered as a psychology student at Warsaw University – she went on to work as an addiction specialist at a hospital there – is present in her fictional practice. In ‘Wisteria’, a short story published in Issue 23 of The White Review last October, a mother and daughter merge as they share an uncanny libidinal experience; in Flights, the story of an anatomist dissecting his own severed limb is interspersed with the search for a lost family and the mysterious digital return of a woman’s former lover. The unnamed narrator, in the middle of a discourse on the powerful act of naming, states that ‘describing is destroying’. Tokarczuk, then, is not a describer but an un-earther; an archaeologist of the collective psyche.

Helen Charman is a writer and academic based in Glasgow. Her first book, MOTHER STATE, is forthcoming from Allen Lane. She teaches in the English Studies department at Durham University.