#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.”

 

#20booksofsummer: Books 8 and 9 (Poland and Switzerland)

My timing is all messed up, but luckily I can kill two birds with one stone here. These two books within my #20booksofsummer also fit in with the Women in Translation Month. So, just imagine this is August already, as I will be out of action for most of that month.

illegalliaisonsGrażyna Plebanek: Illegal Liaisons (transl. Danusia Stok)

This is perfect grist to the mill of anti-EU sentiment: so this is what EU bureaucrats get up to with our money! Affairs, serial affairs and gossiping, jobs with meaningless titles where nobody knows what it is they do exactly… Add to that the fact that the main character is Polish (as his wife, while his mistress is Swedish of Czech origin), and you can add a ‘those darn corrupt foreigners’ to this impression.

Of course, that is not at all what the Polish author intended in this, her fourth novel (and her first to be translated into English). It was first published in 2010 and translated in 2012, but it appears to have caused very few ripples so far, despite its potentially explosive subject matter.

Jonathan decides to become a stay-at-home Dad and pursue his writing ambitions when his wife Megi gets a well-paid position as a lawyer at the European Commission. However, although he enjoys the advantages of expat life, he mocks the self-important and meaningless eurocrats. Bored and perhaps feeling slightly disenfranchised, he embarks upon a torrid affair with the voluptuous journalist Andrea, wife of his wife’s boss.

The sex scenes are frank, as is the description of a man’s growing obsession with the ‘wrong kind of woman’, and the author is frighteningly good at putting herself into a man’s shoes. Of course, the whole concept of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ kind of woman is debatable. Although his wife Megi seems to be exceedingly reasonable and charming, and although he is periodically wracked by guilt, Jonathan just cannot stay away from Andrea.

I enjoyed some of the cross-cultural observations, but overall the book seemed repetitive and confused to me. Perhaps that was the intention: giving us a bit of insight into the male psyche. Compared with the affair described in Isabel Costello’s book Paris Mon Amour (in many ways the mirror image of this, but described from a woman’s point of view), this felt much messier and pointless.

GILLIARD_1E_COUVValerie Gilliard: Le Canal (The Canal) – sadly, not yet translated

This slim volume proves the point that sometimes the simplest of stories can be extremely effective, if well told.

It’s a Friday in October in the small Swiss spa town of Yverdon. The weather is nice once more after a bout of rain, and people are out and about by the side of the canals which feed into the Lake of Neuchatel. An idyllic, peaceful moment, so easy to imagine. Then a little girl starts running after a dog by the side of the canal. Her mother is momentarily distracted by a phone call and the girl falls in. These facts are described quite dryly in the Prologue, and then we see the event (as well as what led up to it and what happened afterwards) from the point of view of several of the witnesses: the mother, Almina; the old fisherman who jumps in to rescue the girl; Steve, a young graduate with right-wing tendencies; Berivan, a Kurdish woman holding a baby; and an old lady who saw everything from her window and called the ambulance.

Yes, it has been done before, most famously in the ‘Rashomon’ film based on the Akutagawa story. But what I liked here is what the different points of view reveal about Swiss society today. Both Almina and Berivan are ‘foreigners’, refugees who fled to this country as children. Although they grew up in that very town, they are still regarded with suspicion. The press is quick to condemn the mother’s carelessness and doubts are soon cast upon her parenting abilities. In the end, it’s the older generation, the fisherman and the old woman with her own tragic past, who are able to reach out a helping hand. And the ending is just beautiful, without being cloyingly sentimental.

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One of the canals in Yverdon, from mapio.net