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European Book Club Reads "Primeval and Other Times"

If I was on last year’s BTBA fiction panel, I would have lobbied hard for Olga Tokarczuk’s Primeval and Other Times, a fascinating book about a small Polish village, its inhabitants, and all that happens to them over the course of the twentieth century. It’s a wonderful book that’s built out of small, discrete chunks that weave together into a very interesting way.

Next Wednesday, May 25th, as part of the ongoing European Book Club, there will be a discussion of Primeval and Other Times at the New York Institute for the Humanities at Cooper Square. All the details—including how to register—can be found by clicking here. The Polish Cultural Institute also put together this page, which has more info about the book itself.

Olga Tokarczuk’s novel, Primeval and Other Times, first published in Poland in 1996, now available in an English version after having been translated into several other languages, is already regarded as a classic of East European post-Communist fiction, winning many prizes and becoming required reading for high school students in Poland. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, when the Polish literary market was flooded with long censored works and translations of formerly forbidden literature from the US and Western Europe, and writers no longer had the Communist regime to push against, Tokarczuk represented a genuinely fresh current in Polish literature, taking a self-consciously woman-centered perspective and moving away from the old politics to consider the relation between cultural archetypes and the events of history. Young Poles in the 1990s read Tokarczuk eagerly in the way that Americans read novelists like Toni Morrison and Gabriel Garcia Márquez during the previous decade.

The novel is set in the mythical village of Primeval in the very heart of Poland, which is populated by eccentric folk characters. The village, a microcosm of Europe, is guarded by four archangels, from whose perspective the novel chronicles the lives of Primeval’s inhabitants over the course of the 20th century. In prose that is forceful and direct, the narrative follows Poland’s tortured political history from 1914 to the contemporary era and the episodic brutality that is visited on ordinary village life.

Yet Primeval and Other Times is a novel of universal dimension that does not dwell on the parochial. A stylized fable as well as epic allegory about the inexorable grind of time, the clash between modernity (the masculine) and nature (the feminine), it has been translated into most European languages.

Tokarczuk has said of the novel: I always wanted to write a book such as this. One that creates and describes a world. It is the story of a world that, like all things living, is born, develops, and then dies. Kitchens, bedrooms, childhood memories, dreams and insomnia, reminiscences, and amnesia – these are part of the existential and acoustic spaces from which the voices of Tokarczuk‘s tale come.



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