#WITMonth: Olga Tokarczuk

I was smitten with Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights when I read it and then had the good fortune to see her and her translator Jennifer Croft at the Hay Festival in 2018. I bought Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead (this time translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones) as soon as it came out, but for some reason I kept putting off reading it. Perhaps because I was sure I would like it, so I was saving it for a rainy day? What rainier day than a plague? But then I got a bit nervous that it might not live up to expectations. A blogger friend who had read it in German translation said it sounded somewhat pedestrian in that language.

Luckily, that was not the case, and my 18th Book of the Summer and first #WITMonth read was as good fun (and serious and thought-provoking and endearing) as I expected. It will certainly make my Top Read of the Year list – and feels remarkably appropriate for this period.

I’ve heard it described as Miss Marple meets Fargo, with a dash of William Blake, feminism and astrology, and that is probably not a bad description. Imagine a middle-aged spinster who lives in a fairly remote village on the border of Poland and the Czech Republic, in the Tartra mountains by the sounds of it. It is the kind of place that is a holiday resort in summer but deserted in winter, but she stays there all year round, looking after people’s second homes. She has a few neighbours, some of them friendly, some of them decidedly not: they view her as nuisance and a nag, with her constant complaints to the police about poaching and cruelty to animals – not that the police do much about it. One night, she and a friendly neighbour she calls Oddball find the body of their less friendly neighbour, nicknamed Big Foot. Convinced that his death was retribution for the way he hunted and killed deer, she sets out to do her own investigation and gets into conflict with the local hunting club, which includes members of the police, the church and pretty much everyone in the rural community.

Still from the film Spoor, photo by Robert Paeka.

That’s all I’m saying about the story, because it’s really not about the plot. It’s above all a fantastic and unforgettable character portrait of a rather formidable woman, who lives quietly but knows when not to be quiet, and who has all sorts of firm, one might even say extreme beliefs: pro-astrology, anti-religion, pro-animal rights, anti-hunting. She is prickly, spiky, yet somehow also endearing. She is mostly alone but not really lonely – although she misses her dogs (she calls them My Girls). She has a few friends who are as eccentric as she is.

Above all, she is full of sharp observations about modern life. Some of them might strike you as absurd, some of them as very perspicacious. She is of course living in the present day and therefore more adapted to modern life, but in many ways there is something timeless about her. The shrewdness of the native peasant, which is a whole branch of literature in Romania (perhaps in Poland too?). She reminded me of both of my grandmothers, larger than life but deliberately not romanticised.

I filled the book with post-it notes, there are so many arch, clever and sometimes downright wicked quotes.

With age, many men come down with a testosterone autism, the symptoms of which are a gradual decline in social intelligence and capacity for interpersonal communication, as well as a reduced capability to formulate thoughts. The Person beset by this Ailment becomes taciturn and appears lost in contemplation. He develops an interest in various Tools and machinery, and he’s drawn to the Second World War and the biographies of famous people, mainly politicians and villains.

I snorted with laughter, remembering a woman author saying how many middle-aged men she came across in the London Library who were writing biographies of Churchill or about planes and trains in the Second World War! The book is full of such darkly humorous observations which had me chortling.

She may have the sharpness of Miss Marple’s observational skills, but this is no mere onlooker. She writes letters, she protests, she argues with people, she does not suffer fools gladly – and she makes friends and has sex. Yes, really, at her age (which is never quite specified, but I suspect she is not as old as one might think). She also has the memorable voice of anger that I heard in Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs:

Anger makes the mind clear and incisive, able to see more. It sweeps up the other emotions and takes control of the body. Without a doubt Anger is the source of all wisdom, for Anger has the power to exceed any limits.

But there are beautiful, almost lyrical and very sad observations about the transience of life, the passing of time, how we are all part of nature, which I then thought about as I was reading my next book, The Wall by Marlen Haushofer. Both of these books are unforgettable and unrepentant in their clear view of the tiny part that humans play in the wider world.

Spring is just a short interlude, after which the mighty armies of death advance; they’re already besieging the city walls. We live in a state of siege. If one takes a close look at each fragment of a moment, one might choke with terror. Within our bodies disintegration inexorably advances: soon we shall fall sick and die. Our loved ones will leave us, the memory of them will dissolve in the tumult; nothing will remain. Just a few clothes in the wardrobe and someone in a photograph, no longer recognized. The most precious memories will dissipate. Everything will sink into darkness and vanish.

I noticed a pregnant girl sitting on a bench, reading a newspaper, and suddenly it occurred to me what a blessing it is to be ignorant. How could one possibly know all this and not miscarry?

Tokarczuk was severely criticised in her native Poland for this book, especially once the film Spoor came out, which is based on this book and was directed by Agnieszka Holland. In an increasingly conservative and Catholic Polish society, it was described as anti-Christian and promoting eco-terrorism. I found this quote by Holland (as reported in The Guardian) very important for understanding both the film and the book:

Holland said the protagonist embodied many disillusioned women of her generation “who are very rational, working as engineers or scientists, who reject the official religion that became very politically corrupt and has little to do with Jesus Christ. But at some point they start to have the need to connect to something like astrology, yoga or zen. It’s the above-55 generation who believed in progress and in the freedom that came with the collapse of communism, and the fact they could take things into their own hands, but who have now lost this hope.”


32 thoughts on “#WITMonth: Olga Tokarczuk”

  1. I so need to catch up on reading this author and stop giving her books as gifts to others without having read them. But great reviews like yours and a desire to give something that I haven’t read mean I have an intimate yet detached relationship to these works I really must remedy!

    1. I could have gone on and on about this book. It really spoke to me – and I thought it couldn’t be bettered but straight afterwards read Haushofer’s The Wall which is a masterpiece, surprisingly similar yet different (the aloneness but without the anger – but then, she is the only human left).

      1. The Wall is one of my all time favourites, so wish there was more of her work. And sad that she never knew of her success. I live that when we pick up the good and great simultaneously.

  2. I remember Janina as an engaging, eccentric and idiosyncratic narrator. Your Holland quote throws an interesting light on her character. The corruption message certainly rang out loud and clear through her voice.

  3. You had me at the main character, Marina Sofia. I think she reflects a lot of women her age, even though there may be cultural differences among those women. I’m very glad to hear the translation worked for you. So often that doesn’t happen.

  4. I’m looking forward to reading this book – love that first quote! – and seeing how the translator dealt with voice and names.
    Funny how Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead seems to be the go-to Tokarczuk novel for English readers, while in France it’s more The Books of Jakób. A question of timing, I suppose!

    1. They haven’t published The Books of Jacob in English yet – Jennifer Croft has been working hard on the translation, I think it’s coming out next year.

  5. Beautiful review, Marina! The quote you shared about testosterone autism made me smile 🙂 I loved the passage you shared about Agnieszka Holland. Very thought-provoking. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Miss Marple meets Fargo sounds wonderful. I want to read this.

  6. I thought this one was loads of fun–I think I liked it even better than Flights. The quote you give is hilarious–I’m practically ready to read it again.

    Of course the Agatha Christie it suggests is (shh!) Roger Ackroyd…

    1. I think I guessed quite early on who was doing what… but that didn’t stop my enjoyment of the book. It’s not really about the whodunit, but the way everything is presented.

    1. Oh, Paula, what a shame we didn’t know each other – I often we bloggers and Tweeterers should hold up pancards with our Twitter handle or something, so we can recognise each other.

  7. Fab post, Marina! I loved this and Flights, and you remind me why. I loved the protagonist, and her strangeness and her love for the animals. I am *so* jealous of you (and Paula!) being at that event!!

    1. Just to make you even more envious, I had a little chat with her and Jennifer and Boris Dralyuk (who is Jennifer’s partner and was there with them) afterwards, because at the time I was working for Asymptote, and the first extract from Flights in English had been published by Asymptote, so they knew the journal well. Of course, at the time, she hadn’t won the Nobel, but she really came across as very down-to-earth and honest and earnest but also humorous.

  8. I’m glad you enjoyed this one, I thought it was excellent, my first experience of this author. I still have Flights tbr which I may get to later this month. I hadn’t heard of the film Spoor. I think I would like to see it.

    1. I want to see the film too now. I understand Olga worked together with Agnieszka on the screenplay. Flights is very different – I was convinced it was non-fiction when I first read it, much like Olivia Laing’s book The Lonely City. But it’s a constellation novel, as Olga calls it, and it helped to have her explain how she conceived of it. I can’t wait for the Books of Jacob translation to come out!

  9. Another one for the wish list.

    I’ve been reluctant to read this author, to be honest, probably because I didn’t want to embark in The Book of Jakob.

    But this one sounds fantastic. I love the first quote and the main character seems to be my kind of woman.

    And I’m even more tempted to buy her books now that I know that the bigot Polish government doesn’t like her. I wonder what the EU is waiting to sanction Poland and Hungary for their cut in freedom.

  10. I so much enjoyed this, mostly because of the main character, one of my older women in fiction. But also because of the commentaty it offers on European society and its hypocrisies. Great review.

    1. You are so right on both counts (the main character and the social commentary, not the great review, I mean – although I thank you for the compliment!)

  11. Wow, that final quote! I have been meaning to read Tokarczuk’s work since it came to prominence thanks to Fitzcarraldo – you have spurred me on!

    1. It’s easier to get into than Flights, because it’s got … well, another serial killer plot, but that’s not really about serial killing. Oh no, you seem to be on a roll!

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