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Post A Quick Guide to Nobel Laureate Olga Tokarczuk (from Justyna Bialowas)
Created by John Eipper on 10/15/19 3:45 AM

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A Quick Guide to Nobel Laureate Olga Tokarczuk (from Justyna Bialowas) (John Eipper, USA, 10/15/19 3:45 am)

Justyna Bialowas writes:

Who is Olga Tokarczuk?

First a psychologist then a writer--she quit the practice in her thirties, when she felt burnt out, and started to write. Book after book, she became famous both in Poland and abroad. She has gathered a collection of prizes: the Polish Nike award, the German-Polish international Brigde Prize, the Man Booker International Prize, two nominations for National Book Awards and, finally, the Nobel Prize. Her books have been translated into numerous languages, including Chinese and Hindi. She is 57 now and her career is in full bloom.

When I was in a bookstore yesterday, there was a man behind me, asking "Do you have any book by Tokarczuk?" Nope. Somebody posted on Facebook a photo of a bookstore somewhere in Poland with a note on the door "Tokarczuk is sold out." I am so lucky I had discovered her before the hype!

What is so special about her writing?

Well, Olga is an amazing storyteller! The Swedish Academy distinguished her "for a narrative imagination that with encyclopedic passion represents the crossing of boundaries as a form of life." This sounds complicated but what I know is that it does not really matter what kind of story she tells--it is the way she does it that makes it special. It is both epic and humble. She shares lots of knowledge but it is always plain and simple. She talks about Poland but she keeps it universal.

Olga Tokarczuk in the Polish landscape

The Nobel Prize happened on Thursday, just before the parliamentary election in Poland. On Sunday, the Law and Justice Party (PiS), a Catholic and Conservative party, won 43% of votes vs 27% for the liberals and 12% for the left. Law and Justice must have not felt comfortable with the prize for Olga. Just a few days earlier, our Minister of Culture, Mr. Glinski, became a laughingstock after he confessed on TV not being able to finish any of Tokarczuk's books. "Now I will do my best to do it, though"--he tweeted in response to Nobel news.

While the PiS mainstream vision of Polish history is that of honor, noble patriotism and tolerance, Tokarczuk very often draws a picture of a xenophobic country, an arrogant colonizer in a state of denial.

To make it worse, Tokarczuk in an environmentalist, a feminist, a human rights activist, you name it. PiS may not like her but, thankfully, the Poles appreciate her and she is really popular. Even this his year she was asked to host the biggest Book Festival in Warsaw in May 2019.

So what should you read/watch to become familiar with Tokarczuk?

She wrote so many books but here are the two most important ones:

Flights. Tokarczuk coined the name "constellation novel" for this one. It comprises of stories and essays on contemporary nomads. The Polish title Bieguni refers to the old Russian sect that believed that the only way to avoid evil was to keep moving.

The Books of Jacob. Watch out! This one is monumental. Tokarczuk took 7 years to write it and it is almost 1000 pages long. It takes place in the 18th-century Poland and centers around Jacob Frank, the eccentric Jew who believed himself to be a Messiah.

Luckily, there is also a movie:

Spoor (Polish: Pokot), directed by Agnieszka Holland in 2017 and adapted from the novel Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O96ZznajP5s

JE comments:  There's no better person to introduce us to Nobel Laureate Olga Tokarczuk than my sister-in-law Justyna Bialowas.  A banker by day, Justyna also writes historical novels and is intimately connected to the Warsaw literary scene.  Many thanks for the primer!  And a 1000-page congratulation to Tokarczuk and the Polish people.  Now I have my work cut out for me:  Must add her to my reading list so I won't be a Philistine like Mr Glinski.

This year's award was a strange "two-fer":  Tokarczuk won for 2018, and Austria's Peter Handke received the '19 prize.  Handke has been called a "genocide apologist," which makes him a controversial choice.  Can anyone send us an introduction?


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  • Nobel Laureates Tokarczuk and Handke (Edward Jajko, USA 10/16/19 3:20 AM)
    I am embarrassed to say that I have read nothing by Olga Tokarczuk (but will correct that soon) or Peter Handke. I would like to point something out, however, that is of bibliographic and also, oh, I can't think of the mot juste, sociological? sociopolitical? interest.

    Peter Handke's works are published in the US by Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, now a division of Macmillan, and FSG lists 17 books by Handke, in English, in its catalog. Olga Tokarczuk, while richly published in Polish, has only four books in English translation: one by a university press; one by a small independent house; and two by a small house that is a division of Penguin Books. There remains an Iron Curtain in Europe.


    In its announcements of Tokarczuk's Nobel Prize, Gazeta Wyborcza noted that someone had entered the Polish Wikipedia page about her and, in place of her description as a "polska" writer, entered the word "antypolska." That was caught and changed, but it is a sign that within Poland there is disagreement about Tokarczuk. To some, she is the anti-Sienkiewicz. Henryk Sienkiewicz, an earlier literature Nobelist, wrote epic novels glorifying Poland's historic past and perhaps minimizing some parts.


    In any event, there is still an Iron Curtain, suspended in great part by the West.


    JE comments:  I would agree with Ed Jajko, but suggest that the Curtain has moved to Poland's eastern borders--with Ukraine and Belarus.  A few years back I stuck my hand through the barbed wire that seals off Belarus from the EU.  A Polish motorcycle cop quickly showed up to ask what we were doing.


    Tokarczuk is definitely not the favorite writer of the ultra-conservative PiS government.  One suspects some nose-thumbing on the part of the selection committee.  Politics in the Nobel?  Imagine that...


    I look forward to a comment from Tom Hashimoto on the recent goings-on in Warsaw.

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    • Crossing the Divoká Orlíce: A Benign Border (Paul Pitlick, USA 10/23/19 3:06 AM)
      JE's comment on Ed Jajko's post of October 16th alluded to a prominent police presence at the eastern Polish border.

      This is much in contrast to my experience at Poland's western border, which must be very familiar to our European colleagues, who might pass easily from the Netherlands into Belgium, for example. My wife and I were visiting some cousins in the eastern Czech Republic, and we were near the border, so we decided to make a quick side-trip.



      If you go to Google Maps and enter the GPS units (50°16'25.72" N, 16°28'51.33" E) = (50.2738N, 16.4809E), you will see a river labeled Divoká Orlíce (Czech) / Dzika Orlica (Polish) or "Wild Eagle" in English, which is crossed by Highway 3113. The crossing is about as threatening as the El Camino Real bridge over San Francisquito Creek (for those with a Stanford orientation). There was no human involvement, no motorcycle, just some blue signs with stars on them.



      I've enclosed 3 pictures. The first is an air view. The second is on the Czech side, looking across the "river" into Poland, and the third is on the bridge, looking backwards into the Czech Republic.



      Contrast that with the US borders, especially the southern one. I'm wondering if the chaos and the sadism which is being inflicted on our fellow human beings is worth the cost. What are the costs, and what are the benefits? Who loses and who gains if a young Polish man or woman goes to Spain for a vacation and/or job? Why does it need to be as complicated as the US makes it?


      JE comments:  Images below.  Paul, did you see any vestiges of the Soviet Bloc-era fortifications?  The borders were robust in the old days, even between fellow Warsaw Pact countries.


      I didn't know whether to file this one under Tourism, Politics, or Nations Compared.  There's no topic in the WAIS Menu for "Border Studies."  But there should be.  Tim Brown has published a number of eloquent studies on the US-Mexico border.  And I've been fascinated with them ever since the Eipper family used to take the old Country Squire on road trips.  Crossing to a new state was always exciting.


      Borders both result from and contribute to Otherness:  they protect the "us" from the "them," and also ensure the perpetuation of the "us/them" distinction.  Sometimes they merely serve to keep the "us" from leaving.


      Paul, you know the Czechs better than anyone in WAISworld.  What is the preferred English name at present for their country?  Since 1993 I've called it the Czech Republic, but increasingly one sees Czechia in print.  The latter is easily confused with Chechnya.  Some say Slovenia, some say Slovakia...Most Americans aren't even fluent in the venerable distinction between Switzerland and Sweden.  Not that a WAISer would make that mistake!

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