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.
Following up on last week’s post about the Guardian‘s New Europe Series, this morning they ran the pieces about Poland, including What They’re Reading in Poland, which focuses on an Open Letter author:
However, the literary mainstream is made up of authors who follow Witold Gombrowicz, who teaches distance from those models of Polish identity. Janusz Rudnicki, Marcin Swietlicki, Michał Witkowski and Jerzy Pilch are writers who find their own ironic ways of dealing with our literary tradition. The most important writer of this group is Pilch – not only because of his novels, but also because of his position as the country’s leading columnist. In view of the vanishing significance of literary criticism, which is now found only in niche magazines, and – I must admit with a heavy heart – the claustrophobia that affects newspapers’ cultural pages, Pilch is considered an authority on literature.
Dorota Masłowska owes him a lot. Her White and Red was the most important debut to appear in the first 20 years after independence. It is seemingly a realist novel about the dregs of society, but in fact the broken language of its heroes, full of references to pop culture and different subcultures, perfectly reflects the chaotic consciousness of all Poles living through those days of political and social transformation. Her second novel, The Queen’s Peacock, won the Nike, Poland’s most important literary award. It’s worth stressing here that awards are another substitute for literary criticism, though this is by no means an exclusively Polish phenomenon. The list of Nike laureates gives quite a reliable insight into the most important trends and names in Polish literature. Take poetry, which competes on equal terms with novels and essays for the title of the best book of the year. It is significant that the last two Nobel prizes for literature won by Poles went to poets: Czesław Miłosz (1981) and Wisława Szymborska (1996).
There’s also a nice bit in here about Reportage:
This genre-busting nature of Polish reportage is also the source of many misunderstandings. When a biography of Poland’s most eminent reporter (and the best-known Polish writer worldwide), Ryszard Kapuscinski, came out last year (Kapuscinski Non-fiction by Artur Domosławski), it provoked many arguments, including about the reporter’s competence. To what degree should a reporter be just a witness, and to what degree an author who includes his or her own outlook, interpretations and literary style? Where does journalism (non-fiction) end, and literary fiction begin? This dispute remains unsettled, just like many other arguments provoked by Domosławski’s book, such as the controversy over the attitudes that journalists and writers adopted during the communist years, or the extent to which a biographer can explore the personal life of his or her subject.
Regardless of the gravity of the charges against the so-called Polish School of Reportage, of which Kapuscinski was the most prominent representative, it is in good condition. Though it is ever rarer in the Polish press, it transfers relatively well to books. Successors of Kapuscinski – Mariusz Szczygieł, Jacek Hugo-Bader, Wojciech Tochman – appear near the top of the bestseller lists, and their works have been translated into all of the major European languages. So reportage is still a Polish speciality, although reporters tend now to wander the world and through history in their search for interesting subjects. Szczygieł devoted his book Gottland (winner of the 2009 European Book prize) to the conflicting attitudes that Czechs adopt towards communism; Hugo-Bader has travelled through a drink-sodden post-Soviet Russia (White Heat); while Tochman has analysed the consequences of the genocide in Rwanda (We Will Portray Death Today). Young writers are following their lead: in Murderer from the Apricot City, Witold Szabłowski reports on the cultural clashes and conflicts that divide contemporary Turkey as it attempts to join the European Union.
It’s interesting and encouraging that a decent number of Polish books are being translated into English and published in the U.S. According to our Translation Database (update coming later this week—promise), 23 works of Polish fiction and poetry have come out here since January 2009. That’s not bad given Poland’s size. And this number doesn’t include all the works of reportage that have come out over that period. (Such as Tochman’s Like Eating a Stone: Surviving the Past in Bosnia.)
Of course, I think Pilch is one of the best. (BTW, we just received the translation of My First Suicide & Other Stories, due out in 2012.) Additionally, I’d personally recommend Olga Tokarczuk’s Primeval and Other Times and Wiesław Myśliwski’s Stone Upon Stone, both of which are brilliant and sweepingly ambitious in their own way.
Just a reminder that the New Literature from Europe festival kicks off tonight with an event at McNally Jackson at 7pm.
This year’s festival is called “Haunting the Present,” and here’s a brief intro from the site:
Today’s Europe is a fascinating convergence of old and new, with high speed trains roaring past thousand-year-old towns. The past and present are never far away from each other, and this year’s New Literature from Europe festival explores this proximity by presenting some of the most powerful recent works of fiction by eight of the most important contemporary European authors. In Haunting the Present, the festival’s seventh annual series, the overriding theme is the continued sway of history on contemporary life. Readers will witness the changes over a century in one house in Bucharest and in another house on a lake outside Berlin as its residents flee each successive regime. They will be transported from the mythical Polish village of Primeval to a small, bucolic French town shortly after World War II, and beyond.
In this year’s New Literature from Europe, eight cultural institutes have teamed up to present a series of discussions and readings featuring eight critically acclaimed European writers: Philippe Claudel (France), Kirmen Uribe (Spain), Jenny Erpenbeck (Germany), Gerhard Roth (Austria), Radka Denemarková (Czech Republic), Olga Tokarczuk (Poland), Gabriela Adameşteanu (Romania), and Antonia Arslan (Italy). Moderators will include distinguished writer André Aciman, chair of Comparative Literature and director of the Writers’ Institute at the CUNY Graduate Center and Susan Bernofsky, Guest Professor of Creative Writing and Literary Translation at Queens College (CUNY).
That’s a pretty sweet lineup of authors and translators, and the four events that make up this festival all sound well-crafted and interesting. Here’s a bit of info on all the goings on:
Haunting the Present: A Reading with Eight European Writers
Tuesday, November 16th, 7pm
Translating the Past that Haunts the Present: A Lecture with Jenny Erpenbeck and Philippe Claudel
Wednesday, November 17th, 3-5pm
CUNY Grad Center
Haunting the Present: A Conversation with the Authors
Wednesday, November 17th, 6:30 pm & 7:45 pm
Center for Fiction
Polish Writing has an interview with the latest NIKE prizewinner, Olga Tokarczuk.
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