Order direct from Twisted Spoon here.
Reviewed in the Guardian:
So, to all readers who might feel either intimated or guilty about enjoying the company of some very old-fashioned queens from a country you’re probably more used to providing your plumber than your literature, reassure yourself that this hilarious, scabrous, sharp-eyed, sharp-tongued (and brilliantly translated) novel is essentially and life-enhancingly political – if by politics we mean who gets to live, and how. Treat yourself; buy it.
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones. Buy it directly from Twisted Spoon
Primeval and Other Times was selected by Polityka magazine for its 20 volume series of great Polish literature of the 20th century (alongside Milosz, Hlasko, Mrozek, and Herbert among others). This is Jaroslaw Klejnocki’s introduction (original here):
“Primeval and Other Times” marked the turning point in the literary career of Olga Tokarczuk, thanks to which she achieved artistic and commercial success.
Published in 1996, the book received multiple awards, including the Koscielski Prize, the Passport prize from “Polityka” magazine as well as being short listed for the Nike prize and winning the Nike readers’ prize. With “Primeval…” Olga Tokarczuk won the hearts and sympathies of international as well as Polish readers. Her books have been translated into several languages (including Chinese and Danish), and the author is well known on the international scene and is at the forefront of the ‘export’ of Polish literature. Her prose has won the readers’ prize of the Nike four times and 2008’s jury awarded her the main prize (for her novel “Bieguni/ Runners”).
With “Primeval…” Tokarczuk confirmed the hopes placed in her as revitalising the storytelling tradition in Polish prose, and fulfilled expectations in the emergence of a writer who is simultaneously original, intriguing, ambitious, and accessible. Books which one is simply keen to read, and also to return to repeatedly.
“Primeval…” is a unique novel, and at the same time a very interesting artistic project. On the one hand it is a saga, harking back to the best traditions of the genre, telling the story of two families – the Boski and Niebieski – living in a fictional village Primeval, located somewhere in the Kielce region. The action of the book begins at the outbreak of World War I, and continues up to the 1980s and describes the trials of three generations. But it is also a stream of consciousness novel, portraying the world as a number of threads – reflective, magical, historical, philosophical – and fills the story with numerous other characters whose often perplexing fates form a specific puzzle of reality and a collective portrait of the Polish provinces in the past century.
Tokarczuk does not base the story around great events, or cultural, political or historical processes. She takes the perspective of individuals – the book is primarily after all a novel (moreover, clearly bearing the mark of feminism) and in this lies the power and conviction of its narrative. The portrayal of individuals (especially women), and their entangled and convoluted roads through life seem to be at the same time surprisingly accurate and – most importantly – authentic, and thus gain the acceptance of the reader.
Another merit of “Primeval…” is the way in which the story is framed. The Primeval of the title is a provincial village, but also a metaphor for the world. Reymont’s Lipce [in Peasants] is a closed space, where everything happens: history intervenes brutally, politics interferes with it, there is social and cultural change, but the main stream of events takes place in the hermetic circle of the local community, made up as much of common as of original human individuality.
Tokarczuk portrays the Polish province in a manner unlike other Polish writers dealing with this topic. She does not engage in satire, like Redlinski (the author of “Konopielki”), nor cultivate nostalgia like Mysliwski (author of “Stone upon Stone”), nor is she fascinated by the collapse of traditional peasant culture and social drama like Kawalec (the author of “Dancing Hawk”). Her village is as much realistic as magical. Her novel – as much psychological as symbolic. In a sense, the artistic vision of Tokarczuk in “Primeval” recalls the works of the Romantics: a mixture of realism and fantasy, rational description and magic, a story rooted in history, and simultaneously full of the fantastical.
It can, of course, be read as a story of the Polish countryside in the turbulent century of war and political transition. It can also be read as a parable of the complexity of human fate, as a psychological and metaphorical novel simultaneously.
The key to understanding “Primeval” however, is myth. Tokarczuk says about Primeval: “Since I can recall, I have wanted to write a book of this kind. To create and describe the world. It is the story of a world which, like all living things, is born, grows and dies”. Myth is in fact a universal template of human fate. Every great novel goes back to the myths – says the writer – that is the repository of universals. And this is just as it is with “Primeval…”
More sophisticated readers will find in this book Buddhist reflections on human and animal suffering, a sentimental and romantic attitude to nature, a Jungian reinterpretation of tragic suffering as a metaphor for human existence, a dialogue between the Pascalian and the Enlightenment rational perception of the concept of God, and finally a pessimistic and Gnostic vision of the world.
But above all it is a breathtaking story of human life and struggle with oneself, with circumstances, with morality and religion, with history. A story full of tenderness for the world, despite its cruelty, and for the people living in it who want at all costs, with varying results, to give meaning to their existence.
Text copyright Polityka and Jaroslaw Klejnocki
· Olga Tokarczuk on her new book in Polish “Drive your plough over the bones of the dead” ·
Interview in Polityka in Polish here.
Justyna Sobolewska: In your new book, “Drive your plough over the bones of the dead” you combine a thriller, a popular genre, with a dark vision of the world and the poetry of William Blake. Where did the idea come from?
Olga Tokarczuk: I had half a year, I wanted to do something light. I also thought that since I was writing a pastiche of a thriller with a crime novel plot – because these days maybe it’s not possible to write something like this wholly sincerely – I would treat the work seriously. I tried to meet the requirements of genre fiction: that it had to be digestible, short and with illustrations. They were drawn by Jaromir, I’m really happy with them, because they’re affectingly sad. It turned out that even if my intentions were rather modest, writing this book I really lived it and went deeply into it. When I set the characters in motion, sketched out situations for them, I had the impression that I was playing a powerful ancient mythological game. So in this sense I didn’t shift too far from my usual concerns.
The title quote from Blake has multiple meanings, one could even imagine the theme would touch on the Holocaust.
The hunters’ lookouts in the illustrations do indeed look like the towers in concentration camps. I think this association is reasonable, but not very relevant to the crime novel. The epigraphs are also from Blake, from Proverbs of Hell and Auguries of Innocence.
You predict in this book the revenge of nature on humankind: enough of the rule of humans, soon it will be time for retaliation.
This book is in a certain sense apocalyptic, even if the vision of the apocalypse is born in the heads of people who we don’t take too seriously.
You write that one can know a country by how it treats its animals, so how is it in Poland?
Long, long ago in Palaeolithic times, people had a magical-sisterly relationship to animals. They were treated as equal entities, just simply somewhat different. Later we started to treat animals in a utilitarian fashion, as tools and objects, which were milked and eaten. After this there was only demoralisation and decline, which ends up with the vision of the modern slaughterhouse, which kills mechanically, in sterile white gloves. Religion comforted us, assuring us that animals were created for our use. Even in the 19th century they taught in the universities, that animals cannot feel pain.
Today some of that old sensitivity is returning.
In the Netherlands for example there is a Party for Animals. I t has two people in parliament and they try to speak in the name of those without a voice. They’ve brought about a lot of good laws, like forbidding farming for fur. In the course of my life a lot has changed. When I was a child and I saw films with horses in battle, I couldn’t concentrate because I was worried what had happened to the horses. Now no-one would make a film without a special adviser on animal matters, whereas once they were killed on set, now this is unimaginable. On the other hand, the range of violence done to animals has increased in an unimaginable way. This is mainly mass breeding for meat. This level of cruelty is not imaginable for the average person so it is carefully hidden.
In your book not only humankind bears the blame, but the entire world is condemned.
The book reflects on why things are they way they are, and whether there is something we can change. And of course we could all wear sneakers and not eat meat, harass institutions which mistreat animals. Yes, that’s exactly what we should do. But there is a very disturbing question: why should it be that one creature must eat another in order to survive? Why is it so easy to inflict death, and with such impunity? This is some bug in the software of the world, as Janina Duszejko says, my main character in this book.
Here the world is a machine without God, like with the Gnostics.
Yes, this is the point of view of one of the great alternative myths in the history of human thought. Uncomfortable, driven underground, contesting the official optimism and vision of a world full of love and goodness.
You cite Blake’s Ulro. Milosz called the Land of Ulro the decline of the religious imagination, here Ulro appears to mean the decline of empathy for suffering.
Blake mourned the fact that the world is a machine under the rule of Urizen. The Land of Ulro is a barren world, without emotion, without sex, without freedom, it is a desert where soulless law prevails. That is how the world looks without imagination. It seems to me that empathy is a form of imagination. Probably not all people have equal abilities for empathy, and so they don’t really understand what we want from them, when we ask them to put themselves in the place of another person or animal. It’s a widening of their imagination at an emotional, sympathetic level. Very Buddhist. Blake wouldn’t have known about Buddhism, but if he had, he would certainly have liked it.
It is difficult to live with a sharpened consciousness, you write that “every particle of the world is made of suffering” – how to bear it? Unawareness is what protects people.
In the end it is a moral choice – to know or not to know. Duszejko has her own theory of defence mechanisms, saying that our entire psyche is one great defence mechanism, because otherwise, as a result of our high human intelligence we would disintegrate with a bang, not being able to bear the suffering around us. I understand that we have to defend ourselves, but we don’t have to also deceive ourselves. I think that terrible truth is better than ignorance. From this comes art and literature, in order to shake us by the shoulder and wake us from our unreflective daydream.
Duszejko, who is called a “crazy old woman” has a lot in common with Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello.
Yes, she’s a similar type, but Costello was an intellectual. My character is more similar to the heroines of Leonora Carrington. Of my previous characters, Duszejko is most similar to Florentynka who talked with the moon and took care of cats and dogs, and also Parka from “Final Stories”. There is great potential in the character of an older woman who the world relegates to the margins of social life. These characters have always especially moved me. In Warsaw, around ‘Winnie the Pooh’ Street, there is a woman who feeds the cats. She turns up with plastic bags, and cats run out to her from all kinds of holes and basements – they are expecting her. Around her is the vibrant life of the capital, buses driving past, the stock market working, the Court’s pronouncing judgements. And she appears with her bags among the animals and time stops around her. And this is a moment of epiphany, this is the goddess Artemis or Demeter, who resemble an old woman with a cane, with two bags of food for dogs and cats.
I have the impression that this is your most revolutionary book, the sign of opposition to reality is clear.
This book for me is like “Anna In in the Catacombs”. These two books are in some sense similar to each other. Angry. “Anna In” was dressed in the costume of mythology and fantasy, this book plays with the conventions of the crime novel. But it is still the same story of rejection of hypocrisy and suffering. But the main characters are diametrically opposite. Duszejko is in no way similar to the triumphal Anna In. She is an old woman, a retired school teacher who leads her own quiet life in Kotlina Klodzka, who takes care of the summer houses of her neighbours. She and her friends recall the good old days of the hippies, revolution and flower power, a New Age with some kind of new fresh way of thinking about the world.
It was very important to me that Duszejko created positive feelings, that the book was playful, to offset the dark humour that at times is a little black. That’s why the fairly gloomy story is told with a certain amount of distance, even though it has an absolutely tragic dimension. These days people are frightened of speaking seriously, sincerely. They prefer irony and coolness. The don’t trust their own emotions or anger. I value irony, I think it is the best hallmark of intelligence, but overused, for example to trivialise things that are important and painful, it becomes bad intelligence. My characters are rather naïve, and – as they say about themselves – useless, they didn’t establish a career, didn’t achieve anything, they are losers and weirdoes. But at least they realise this and don’t pretend to be anything else.
There are some comic observations in “Plough” regarding Poles, we can’t manage to create any kind of community like the Association of Mushroomers.
I’ve lived in the countryside for a long time and I know what I ‘m talking about. We meet in order to celebrate festivals once a year, but each of us has their own interests, their own place where the best boletus grow which they will never share. We are an unwilling community of individualists. We don’t have in our culture traditions of association, helping each other or being together. It’s a paradox that our great “Solidarity” was named like this, because this is exactly what we lack.
A Czech paradise appears in this book.
Duszejko idealises the Czechs. And there is something to this. I myself envy Czechs a lot of things, like their relaxation, their unpretentious naturalness. I envy them that they shamelessly broadcast their folk music on practically all the radio stations. Very often in the countryside I hear their brass umpa-umpa. I envy their rootedness in their own Czechness.
It’s so natural to be a Czech. But to be a Pole is to have problems with Polishness, with oneself, with the whole country, with history. Starting with the great writers, and ending with the minor labourer or plumber, who has emigrated to London, and they all feel uncomfortable with their own Polishness.
You write barely anything here either about contemporary reality, or about history.
I tried to keep this book clear of the kind of politics as it is understood by the media, that is summarised disputes, martyrology, history understood as an accounting of dates of particular events. But the book is extremely political. It is political in the widest sense of politics as an evaluation of what is happening around us, and the telling stories of certain aspects of these events.
The story is told via astrology, a not very serious field these days.
Unimportant people occupy themselves with unimportant fields: the poetry of Blake, the stars, in other words: with rubbish. Every modern member of the contemporary, developing, liberal world will look at them in a patronising way, full of a feeling of superiority and compassion. Astrology? Blake? All of this “New Age”? Who does that move today? All of this is now funny, unfashionable, passé…
Astrology has turned itself into Horoscopes, but Jung is out of fashion….
Well exactly. Every generation feels that it is absolutely new and it will do everything from the beginning and properly. I also thought that. When I studied psychology at the start of the 1980s I believed that humanist psychology would change the world for the better. That we were free and could do great things. That loving children and bringing them up wisely would build a healthy society, that humankind is good by nature and so on. And now, after 20 years there is a completely different paradigm: socio-biological, scientism. And from that point of view those times are only pathetically funny, like the cut of trousers or 80s hairstyles.
Reality is the bundle of languages with which we speak about the world. Writers should try to find their own language in this chaos. And astrology was always for me an old and beautiful way of looking for order and laws which rule over us, always flexibly adapted to the era. What most fascinated me was the need to link the macro and microcosms, which is the fundament of astrology. I would like it if it really were like that. Traditional astrology is incredible in the way it bores into the details of human life, it shows in detail, how the great cosmos influences our little lives. It gives one courage.
Astrology provides order, but it seems to me that you used to write about the world in terms of chaos?
Chaos is the opposite of order, so writing about one, is simultaneously to write about the other. My characters are not comfortable with chaos and search for knowledge, which will reveal an order that had been previously hidden.
Knowledge is able to liberate us. In “The Journey of the People of the Book”, they look for the book so that everything will finally be made clear. In each book in turn, I describe people looking for order: it might be psycho-spiritual like in “EE”, mythological like in “Primeval and Other Times”. Each time it is an order that is not religious, there is no God there in the Christian sense. In “Runners” it’s a runners’ order, a cosmos of atheists, who must create an ethical order for themselves. The dying Professor of Greek has a vision of the renewal of humankind, he dreams of once more starting from the beginning, to return to Greece, to see a world full of gods. Artemis feeds cats, Hermes sells socks from a stall, Neptune is a plumber. Something which had been lost is restored, and we could live in a dignified way, because our choices would be real choices, not the mere gestures of unimportant and meaningless rats.
Once I wanted to take this direction, to show a world which is filled with epiphanies. It’s very possible that as I get older I’m getting dangerously close to Janina Duszejko.
Interview copyright Polityka and Justyna Sobolewska.
In Fado, Stasiuk puts the blasted landscape of Nine (“every lavatory lady used to tell stories Scheherazade wouldn’t dream of when she finally hit the sack”) and the horrors of Darwinian survival in the mountains behind him. “This lyric of loss, this Slavic On the Road,” he describes the book, footnotes his novels, giving them the analytic hinge he refuses in his fiction. In Fado, he outlines why the East is a stranger in the West and still a threat to it; how the long history of the twentieth century uprooted the East; in what ways capitalism puts so many lives in the East at risk. Fado also follows his search—the legacy of the road—for a new life, his “Europeanness” questioned from either side, not only by the West but also by Gypsies, who Stasiuk is drawn to because their “ahistorical presence” defies understanding by the modern world.
In Lord Palmerston’s days, the English public naturally heard a great deal about Poland, for there were a goodly number of Poles, noblemen and others, residing in London, exiles after the unsuccessful revolution, who, believing that England would help them to recover their lost liberty, made every possible effort to that end through Count Vladislas Zamoyski, the prime minister’s personal friend. But even in those times, when the English press was writing much about the political situation in Poland, little was said about that which constitutes the greatest glory of a nation, namely, its literature and art, which alone can be secure of immortality. Only lately, in fact, has any public attention been paid by English people to Polish literature. However, among the authors who have attracted considerable attention of late, is the writer of “By Fire and Sword,” whose “Quo Vadis,” has met with a phenomenal reception. Henryk Sienkiewicz has by his popularity proved that in unfortunate, almost forgotten, Poland, there is an abundance of literary talent and an important output of works of which few English readers have any conception. For instance, who has ever heard, in Great Britain, of Adam Michiewicz the great Polish poet, who, critics declare, can be placed in the same category with Homer, Virgil, Dante, Tasso, Klopstock, Camoens, and Milton? Joseph Kraszewski as a novel writer occupies in Poland as high a position as Maurice Jokai does in Hungarian literature, while Mme. Eliza Orzeszko is considered to be the Polish Georges Sand, even by the Germans, who are in many respects the rivals of Slavs in politics and literature.
Henryk Sienkiewicz, asked by an interviewer what he thought about the contemporary Polish literary talents, replied: “At the head of all stand Waclaw Sieroszewski and Stefan Zeromski; they are young, and very promising writers. But Eliza Orzeszko still holds the sceptre as a novelist.”
When the “Revue des Deux Mondes” asked the authors of different nationalities to furnish an essay on women of their respective countries, Mme. Orzeszko was chosen among the Polish writers to write about the Polish women. It may be stated that translations of her novels appeared in the same magazine more than twenty years ago. She is not only a talented but also a prolific writer. She has suffered much in her life, and her sufferings have brought out those sterling qualities of soul and heart, which make her books so intensely human, and characterise all her works, and place her high above contemporary Polish writers. The present volume may stand as a proof of her all-embracing talent.
There is also a US translation by Iza Young called Meir Ezofovitch, from which the above illustration is taken.