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.
For any of you Jerzy Pilch fans, Chad is hosting an evening tomorrow at Solas Bar in NYC (232 E. 9th Street, around the corner from St. Mark’s Bookshop) to discuss Pilch’s The Mighty Angel. It’s a part of the excellent European Book Club series.
The event starts at 7 PM, and I bet you could even talk Chad into going out for a drink after the discussion. Whether going out for a drink after discussing a book about alcoholism is ironic or not, I leave to you. But as the narrator of The Mighty Angel says, “I’m aware, I really am fully aware that it’s impossible, in my case especially it’s impossible, to live a long and happy life when you drink. But how can you live a long and happy life if you don’t drink?”
Registration is open for next month’s European Book Club, in which Italy is the focus country, and the title being discussed is Stefano Benni’s Margherita Dolce Vita, which was translated by Anthony Shugaar and published by Europa Editions.
Stefano Benni’s enormously popular and distinctive mix of the absurd and the satirical has made him one of Italy’s best-loved novelists. This is his twelfth bestselling book of fiction. Fifteen-year-old Margherita lives with her eccentric family on the outskirts of town, a semi-urban wilderness peopled by gypsies, illegal immigrants, and no end of bizarre characters: a reassuring and fertile playground for an imaginative little girl like Margherita. But one day, a gigantic, black cube shows up next door. Her new neighbors have arrived, and they’re destined to ruin everything.
Over at the Europa Editions website, there’s a recap of an event with Benni and author Jonathan Coe, which includes this bit on Benni’s influences:
Coe spoke of his appreciation of Benni’s comedy in Margherita Dolce Vita. In its criticism of mindless consumerism it reminded him of the comedy of Jacques Tati in the films Playtime and Mon Oncle. Reacting, Benni said he admired Tati, but for him a much greater influence was Dario Fo.
Benni described how writing Margherita Dolce Vita came about; he met young girls who found it difficult to be non conformist at school, which led him to reflect on how life must be these days for an intelligent young girl.
The Europa Editions site also has a video of Benni reading in Italian.
There are two Book Club sessions: you can register for the one on May 11th at 6pm at the Istituto Italiano di Cultura (686 Park Avenue, between 68th and 69th Streets) by e-mailing italy.nyc [at] europeanbookclub [dot] org, and you can register for the May 19th one taking place at 7pm in the Central Library at Grand Army Plaza, Brooklyn by e-mailing eurobook [at] brooklynpubliclibrary [dot] org
I’m somewhat ashamed that this is the first time we’re posting about the European Book Club. I’m not sure exactly when this started (I just found out about it from Bill Martin of the Polish Cultural Institute), but looking at the books included in the 2008 program—Thomas Bernhard’s The Loser, Amara Lakhous’s Clash of Civilizations Over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio, Peter Sis’s The Wall—this is a pretty amazing program.
Between March and November (and skipping July and August), the club meets once a month (there are sessions both in New York and Brooklyn) to discuss a book selected by one of the participating cultural centers. The cost of participating is free—all you have to do is buy a copy of the book and read it—but from what I’ve heard, the sessions fill up really quick, so if you’re interested in attending you really should register online as soon registration opens.
The first book in the 2009 season will be City Sister Silver by Jachym Topol, translated from the Czech by Alex Zucker, and published by Catbird Press, a book that I’ve personally wanted to read for a while now . . .
Think one part Burgess, a little bit of Joyce, mix in some Kerouac, spiced with American Indian myth and . . . wahlah . . . City Sister Silver. Jachym Topol’s novel rocked the Czech literary scene. Marked by rapid changes in syntax, style, spelling, grammar and dialogue Topol’s style is both wild and brilliant. From one sentence to the next Topol shifts tone and meaning, mixing the vernacular with traditional literary form. Though not so radical to the English speaking world, Topol’s style marks a turning point in Czech literature. City Sister Silver is the only book from the 1990s to be included in the list of the 100 Greatest Czech Prose Works of the Century.
The book kicks off soon after “time exploded.” With the Velvet Revolution kicking, City Sister Silver is an account of one man’s response to the new era. It is nearly impossible to summarize the many plot lines as the novel skips and jumps from dreams to drunken delusions to stark reality. In a very small nutshell: Potok is an actor, a black market entrepreneur, a drinker and a romantic. Potok and his droogs rule the underbelly of Prague and have their hands in nearly every public project and business venture. Yet, he has little interest in business; Potok’s main agenda is to find his soul mate, his sister.
The book club will take place on March 23rd at the Czech Center (321 East 73rd Street), with a second session at the Brooklyn Public Library (not sure if that’s on 3/23 as well or not).
Registration isn’t open yet—as soon as it is, I’ll make another post for anyone who’s interested in attending.
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