Olga Tokarczuk: Czysty kraj [Pure Country]

The latest addition to my website is Olga Tokarczuk‘s Czysty kraj [Pure Country]. This is the first and longest story in a collection called Ostatnie historie [Recent Stories]. It tells of Ida Marzec, a fifty-four year old divorced Polish tour guide who, when driving a friend’s car during winter, skids off the road. She seems to be unhurt but the car is badly damaged. She finds shelter with a nearby old couple and is examined by their grandson, a vet, and pronounced physically unharmed. She spends the next few days, drifting around, unsure of herself and where she is, reluctant to phone for help and thinking of her past life. Above all, images of death creep in, as she thinks about her mortality and her heart condition (which doctors say is minor but she is not so sure), the dog in the house who is dying of cancer and, eventually, the nature of the place where she is staying which is place that takes in dying animals and eases them to death. Is she one of them? It is another brilliant book by Tokarczuk, sadly available in seven languages but not English.

Stefan Chwin: Hanemann (Death in Danzig)

The latest addition to my website is Stefan Chwin‘s Hanemann (Death in Danzig). Hanemann whose name is the title in most languages, including the Polish original, is a professor of anatomy in Danzig. He is to perform a post-mortem when he discovers that the body is of his lover, killed in a ferry accident. We then switch to the end of the War and the Germans are fleeing Danzig. Hanemann looks as though he is going to leave but then stays. We are never sure why. The family of the young narrator, Piotr, like Chwin’s own family, arrive in what is now Gdánsk and move in to a flat below Hanemann. The rest of the book is about their relationship with this enigmatic man, suspected by the Polish authorities of being a spy, a man who is living partially in the past, a German who speaks fluent Polish and has no desire to return to Germany but embraces German culture and a man who helps his neighbours and gets on with them. We never really learn who he is and nor does he himself.

Olga Tokarczuk: Księgi Jakubowe (Books of Jacob)

The latest addition to my website is Olga Tokarczuk‘s Księgi Jakubowe (Books of Jacob). When you are self-isolating from a virus, a nearly one thousand page long novel by a Nobel Prize Winner written in a foreign language is the best way to distract yourself. It is availabe in Czech, Dutch, French, German and Swedish but will not appear in English till March 2021. The novel tells the story of the historical Jacob Frank, a false Messiah in 18th century Poland and surrounding areas, who attracts many followers and many enemies, who converts to both Islam and Christianity and becomes very involved with the rich and powerful in Poland, with Christians as well as Jews and moves around between what is now Turkey and Eastern Europe. Though the main characters are male, Tokarczuk portrays many strong women who play a key role behind the scenes. It is a brilliant but highly complex novel, with a cast of hundreds and lots of historical and religious issues.

Olga Tokarczuk: Prowadź swój pług przez kości umarłych (Drive Your Plough over the Bones of the Dead)

The latest addition to my website is Olga Tokarczuk‘s Prowadź swój pług przez kości umarłych (Drive Your Plough over the Bones of the Dead). This is a superb novel from the Nobel Prize Winner. It tells the story of Janina Duszejko, an elderly woman who lives on her own in a remote Polish village near the Czech border. Various people start mysteriously dying in the village. Janine who is a great animal lover and opposed to hunting is convinced that it is the animals taking their revenge. Others have different theories. Janine, a former bridges engineer, is a lover of William Blake and his views that there is another world we cannot or will not see. She is also an astrologer, convinced that astrology can explain many things. In short, she sees the human and animal world as closely linked and the world with mysteries that most of us choose to ignore. Tokarczuk gives us both a clever thriller as well as a major novel of ideas. As she says in her Nobel Prize acceptance speech she tells stories as if the world were a living, single entity, constantly forming before our eyes, and as if we were a small and at the same time powerful part of it.

Olga Tokarczuk: Bieguni (Flights)

The latest addition to my website is Olga Tokarczuk‘s Bieguni (Flights). The Polish title refers to a sect of Old Believers who believed that they should run away from anti-Christian authorities. However, though this issue briefly comes up later in the book, the novel is essentially a series of chapters of varying lengths, primarily on the theme of travel or, at least, of elsewhere, telling stories, historical anecdotes, experiences of travel, travel philosophy and her obsession with biological and anatomical oddities. She tells us some wonderful stories, introduces to the idea of plastination (a technique or process used in anatomy to preserve bodies or body parts) and tells us her philosophy of travel – It Doesn’t Matter Where I Am, it makes no difference. I’m here. It is not a conventional novel but if you have ever travelled or wanted to travel, you will find it a joy to read.

Olga Tokarczuk: Dom dzienny, dom nocny (House of Day, House of Night)

The latest addition to my website is Olga Tokarczuk‘s Dom dzienny, dom nocny (House of Day, House of Night). The novel is set in the Polish town of Nowa Ruda, south-west Poland (Tokarczuk lives in a nearby village). It used to be in Germany but became Polish after the war. It is on the Czech border. The female narrator tells stories of herself, her neighbours, the other inhabitants and people who visit the town, including the German occupiers in the war. We go back to the local saint Wilgefortis aka Kümmernis, who had a woman’s body but the face of Christ (with beard) and the two world wars and up to around 1980. Most of the inhabitants are somewhat eccentric. However, we are not spared the horrors of wars and multiple deaths. All the stories are highly imaginative and original, with mystery and otherworldliness hanging over them. It is another first-class work from Tokarczuk.

Olga Tokarczuk: Prawiek i inne czasy (Primeval and Other Times)

The latest addition to my website is Olga Tokarczuk‘s Prawiek i inne czasy (Primeval and Other Times). This is the second of Tokarczuk’s novels published in English. It tells the story of a quasi-mythological village in Poland called Primeval. The village has fairly precise geographical coordinates but does not exist in real life. We follow the Niebieski family and their relatives from 1914 to approximately 1980. In some cases we get realistic accounts, e.g. of the two world wars and their effect on the village, and in other cases, Tokarczuk uses fantasy or magic realism to show other aspects of the village, in the way that Gabriel García Márquez does in Cien Años de Soledad (One Hundred Years Of Solitude). The whole story mirrors the suffering that Poland has experienced during the period, from the two world wars to Communism and its corruptions. It is a superb introduction to Tokarczuk’s work.

Józef Wittlin: Sól ziemi (The Salt of the Earth)

The latest addition to my website is Józef Wittlin‘s Sól ziemi (The Salt of the Earth). This was originally published in 1935 and originally published in English in 1939 but this is a new translation. It is a World War I novel, part-mocking, part-serious. It is also the first part of a trilogy but only the first section of the second book remains, the others having been lost during World War II. We follow Piotr Niewiadomski, an illiterate, half-Polish, half-Hutsul railway worker. When World War I breaks out (we see Franz Josef signing the order), he is first promoted to acting signalman and then called up into the army. Because the Russians might be breaking through, he and his fellow conscripts are shipped off to Hungary, where we follow their hard life in a garrison (next door to the abattoir and cemetery). The first part is more mocking, both the people the area where Piotr lives but also the preparations for war, while the second part is more serious, with criticism of the cruelty of the officers and NCOs. Wittlin is clearly anti-war and puts over his point of view well but it is a pity that we do not see the men in action.

Zofia Nałkowska: Granica (Boundary)

boundary

The latest addition to my website is Zofia Nałkowska‘s Granica (Boundary). This is a superb Polish feminist novel, first published in 1935, which surprisingly has only just been translated into English, eighty years after publication. It is considered a classic in Poland and should now be recognised as one in the English-speaking world. We learn from the very first paragraph that Zenon Ziembiewicz has been killed, murdered by Justyna Bogutówna, his former lover. The novel tells us the story of how this came to happen. Zenon had been a serious young man, somewhat in love with Elżbieta Biecka, who helped her twice-widowed aunt run her large house, which had been turned into flats. Zenon goes off to Paris to study but, on return, falls for Justyna, the nineteen-year old daughter of the cook on the estate where his father works as an overseer. The affair continues on and off but Justyna gets pregnant, while Zenon, now a successful newspaper editor, is more interested in Elżbieta. The novel shows many of the women as victims of men’s cruelty, drunkenness, irresponsibility and womanising as well as showing the often desperate situation of the poor, while telling an excellent story of love gone wrong.