Olga Tokarczuk is a prolific Polish writer. Her novel Flights, translated by Jennifer Croft, won the Man Booker International Prize 2018. We spoke to her about being a Central European writer, the current political situation in Poland, and the backlash against her latest book.
Does literature have a role to play in defining politics or in contributing to activism? Or is literature art and removed from that sphere?
If it plays a role, I would say that it wouldn’t be consciously. If a writer writes a novel just for activism, it wouldn’t be good art. You must remember that I grew up in communist time under very strong propaganda. I know how propaganda works – it can suck the entire artistic energy from a book, a painter and so on.
Do you feel like you’re working under propaganda now?
There is strong propaganda now in Poland. I can’t remember such strong propaganda even in my childhood under communism. This, now, is much stronger and much more sophisticated, utilising the power of the internet and fake news. Our government wants to create a propaganda machine. They want to control and define history, to rewrite the memory about our past, obliterating any dark sides. In such a time as we live in now in Poland the role of the writer is very special. We have to be honest and decent people, to write about the world in the right way.
Does your latest book, The Books of Jacob, reflect on the monolingual, monoethnic myth that is being constructed in Poland now?
I think the subject of my book – a multicultural Poland – was not comfortable for proponents of this new version of history. The book was boycotted. It didn’t fit in with the new narrative order. It’s interesting to me that contemporary wars aren’t conducted on the street or with weapons, but with words and narratives. We can also see that with Russia and Putin. It is a question of who can tell the story better.
An interesting aspect about your work vis-à-vis the current Polish government is the question of who gets to police history and who gets to define the narrative of what that history is.
In the case of The Books of Jacob it was a fragile question of collective identity. The new narrative is that we should understand ourselves in national terms. We know that this is anachronistic because we can feel that the concept of ‘nation’ is a little bit rotten. It doesn’t have the power to describe the contemporary identity of people living in the world. We should look for other ideas to describe us as a collective, as a group, as a society. But people still come back to this idea of the nation. Of course Poland is in the middle of Europe, and we are on the plateau, and we were always a space where armies went through. We lost our state identity under the partition, and so on. You cannot expect anything to be ‘ethnically Polish’ – which is a very dangerous idea.
That’s how people are written out of history.
Yes – and thinking about blood, in Central Europe, is madness. My book shows that Poland was negotiating energies between so many nations and cultures, including Muslim culture because it shared a border with the Ottoman Empire. My heroes in the book are Jewish, they change their identity and religion and become Polish. It shows the old traces of many Polish cultural traditions, like Polish messianism. It shows us as a melting pot in the middle of Europe. It’s so simple, so true.
Flights has just been translated into English now. People have said that it’s about the modern psyche of never being able to settle, always being on the go. Would you say the idea of always being on the move is a theme in all your writing?
Yes. I did write one novel, House of Day, House of Night, which is a kind of hymn to settlement. The heroine buys a house and it is essentially a song about how wonderful it is to be in one place, to root. But I think I wrote this book like I was in a dream: something that I imagine as beautiful but also painful. I think moving, to be unrooted, is always my idée fixe, my leitmotiv. Even my debut novel had ‘journey’ in the title.
You’ve described yourself in the past as a Central European writer, and you organise a festival in Silesia in Central Europe. What is being a Central European writer to you? Is it the place? Is it an idea?
I haven’t yet clarified this idea to the end, but I have some intuitions about it. I think literature in Central Europe played a different role in history than it did in the West. For example, in Western Europe literature was more for leisure and pleasure, for the middle class to enrich their experience of life.
The first thing is that literature played the role of a weapon. It stabilised the identity of people under the Partitions of Poland, let’s say, and it helped keep a language. Literature always had a task. It was always political, involved in political things.
The second thing is that we haven’t had a middle class for that long. Under partition, Poland had economic problems, and the middle class spoke other languages – German and Russian – that were part of other societies. If you don’t have a middle class you don’t have readers! If you have millions of illiterate people, there is no book market. In Poland poetry was very popular. We have two Nobel prize winners for poetry. Poetry was this tool, this channel to explain what we are, what the world is. Poetry is easier to learn by heart, you can be on stage, you can recite it. The novel was delayed.
On the other hand, in Poland there is a model of the novel that is historically involved, but these books were written to strengthen heart. They showed Polish history as brave and heroic, as spirit-building. Their mission was to create a beautiful fairy tale. As you see, there are different roles of literature. I’m often asked in the West: Why are you from Central Europe writing such experimental books? I think we have different feelings of reality. Our reality is not stable like it is here, in the UK, on an island. Everything is the same, all the time, old buildings, old pubs. You are attached to traditions – the hot and cold tabs, for example. If you have a capital of the country like Warsaw, which was completely destroyed during the war, then you can do whatever you like in literature because everything is changeable, fluid. This feeling of the fluidity of reality is very strong.
We don’t trust the idea of telling a story from beginning to end in a classic way because it’s simply not true. Nothing happens in this beautiful linear way.
Telling a story, understanding a story is like jumping around, full of paradoxical turns. Perhaps that has an impact on the form.
It also reflects history better, because the idea that history is just a linear narrative is of course a projection. Do you think the difference between Central European and other literature is the idea that it’s not written for entertainment necessarily, that it’s written with a moral purpose, with a purpose to analyse the wrongs in society?
Yes – that’s certainly true for Austrian literature. It’s painful, like drilling a hole in your own body, feeling that pain. This is probably also because of psychoanalysis, whose seeds are in Central Europe. If you can talk about such a thing as Central European literature, it’s much deeper and darker, throwing a light onto the dark side of humanity. I think the Jewish heritage of Central European literature is another important aspect. It was so present in our society, in our cultures. Take the case of Polish messianism, taken as a romantic Polish idea to create Polish identity, which is quite paradoxical: that you can take a Jewish idea to build Polish identity, and exclude Jewishness. The Jewish presence was very fruitful.
A final question: We’ve talked so much about this fluidity of borders. What is it like to be defined as a Polish writer? Does the idea of a nation defining who the writer is hold any importance for you, or is that concept flawed because nations are a construct?
I am deeply convinced that literature has no borders. There is one literature, and it uses different languages as its tools. That’s why translators are so important. They are like fragile links between languages, reminding us that literature is one. Sometimes when I read a book from China I can recognise something that is very personal and moving to me. That’s a miracle for me. There is something in our common unconsciousness that creates literature. I am a Polish writer by language and culture, but I treat myself as a universal writer.
Olga Tokarczuk is one of Poland’s best and most beloved authors. In 2015 she received the Brueckepreis and the prestigious annual literary award from Poland’s Ministry of Culture and National Heritage, as well as Poland’s highest literary honour, the Nike and the Nike Readers’ Prize. Tokarczuk also received a Nike in 2009 for Flights. She is the author of eight novel, two short story collections and has been translated into a dozen languages. Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead (translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones) will be published by Fitzcarraldo Editions on 12 September 2018. The Books of Jacob will be out in 2019.
Read an essay by Jennifer Croft on translating The Books of Jacob.
Photo credit: Jacek Kołodziejski
Interview by Theodora Danek. With thanks to Antonia Lloyd-Jones for facilitating this interview.