Beyond borders: journeying into Olga Tokarczuk’s divided homeland on the eve of her Nobel Prize win

Beyond borders: journeying into Olga Tokarczuk’s divided homeland on the eve of her Nobel Prize win

Joy Neumeyer was in Lower Silesia, homeland of Olga Tokarczuk, in the week the novelist received the Nobel Prize for Literature. She reports on Poland's mixed reactions on receiving the news.

31 October 2019

The fog hung low over the mountains of Lower Silesia, Olga Tokarczuk’s home region in southwestern Poland, on the eve of the announcement that she had won the Nobel Prize for Literature. My partner’s father, a philosopher and friend of the author, updated us on the latest odds for her victory: “6 to 1!”, he reported with excitement. The bookies’ rankings were a break from talk of the impending elections on October 13, in which the far-right Law and Justice Party was predicted to extend its rule — indeed they won, securing the majority of seats in Parliament for another four years.

Poland’s literary giants are typically revered across political lines, although some previous Nobel winners, including Wisława Szymborska, the last Polish writer to receive the prize in 1996, allied themselves with the opposition.

After someone verbally attacked her in a local shop, she learned how to shoot a bow and arrow in order to defend herself

Tokarczuk is a polarising member of the latter camp. A dreadlocked feminist, environmentalist, and LGBTQ advocate, she is an idol on the left and a punching bag on the right, which decries the scourges of supposedly anti-Polish cosmopolitanism. She has used her rising international stature to speak out against Law and Justice’s efforts to crack down on the press and pack the courts. After the prize announcement, she declared that Poles faced “a choice between democracy and authoritarianism”.

Olga Tokarczuk giving an interview for Polish press. Image: Plogi, under a CC license

Tokarczuk lives with her partner and dogs in a village 90 kilometres southwest of the region’s capital, close to the Czech Republic. Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead, her phantasmagoric thriller about a slew of murders that appear to have been committed by forest creatures, is set in these borderlands. My partner and I were driving through the area — which also provides the backdrop for Agnieszka Holland’s adaptation of the novel, Spoor — on our way to the nearby Table Mountains. Tokarczuk hosts an annual literary festival here and is a local hero, though she has also faced threats. After someone verbally attacked her in a local shop, she learned how to shoot a bow and arrow in order to defend herself.

The Nobel committee, in announcing the prize, praised Tokarczuk’s writing for “crossing borders as a way of life.” Her oeuvre has encompassed speculative fiction (Bizarre Stories); meditations on travel and anatomy (in the Man Booker Prize-winning Flights); and the saga of a 18th-century Jewish sect that converted to Islam and then Catholicism (in The Books of Jacob, a 1,000-page epic that her English-language publisher is hurriedly preparing for release). The author’s polyphonic work is a testament to her roaming imagination, as well as the tangled history of the region where she lives.

Read more The meteoric rise of Olga Tokarczuk

Lower Silesia is representative of the country’s centuries-long division and redivision by Europe’s land-hungry empires. Variously part of the kingdoms of Poland, Bohemia, and the Habsburgs, it was annexed by Prussia in the 18th century and became part of the German Empire in the next. Wrocław, the cosmopolitan centre where Tokarczuk lived after studying psychology in Warsaw, boasts medieval churches, Art Nouveau mansions, and a large synagogue that was once home to the region’s vibrant Jewish life. In the early 1930s, some of Hitler’s first forced-labor camps were established in Wrocław’s environs. During the Second World War, much of the city would be destroyed, and most of the region’s Jews murdered. When Stalin led the victors at Yalta in redrawing Poland’s borders, Lower Silesia’s majority-German population was removed and replaced with Poles from the Eastern territory of Galicia, now part of Ukraine. My partner’s grandfather, who arrived in 1946, recalls stepping off the train into a wasteland of ruins and cemeteries.

Lower Silesia. Image courtesy of the author

Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead is set on a plateau above the Kłodzko Valley, which the narrator describes as “a remote harbinger” of the surrounding sandstone mountains. It is a liminal zone: unmarked on the map, the settlement once bore the German title “Luftzug” (or “current of air,” from the strong winds that pass through it), but after the war, no one bothered to rename it. The woods are so close to the Czech border that one can cross it without noticing, as the narrator revels in doing several times a day. A devoted astrologist, she sees every piece of the world as bound up with the rest in a cosmos of correspondences. Blueberry and beetle, the living and the dead — no speck of matter is above any other, and humans who forget that do so at their peril.

Rain dumped out of the sky as we followed the road through spruce trees. In the novel, one character speaks of the Night Archer, a mythic figure who flies through the area on a black stork to hunt evil men. We traversed the sandy soil on foot, our bellies full of beer and potatoes from a Czech pub. As we tried to make out the trees across the border through thickening fog, we passed a plaque nailed to a rock. It was dedicated to two young people whose bodies were found there in 1997. A local detective who became obsessed with the case self-published a book theorising that they were killed by neo-Nazis. The murders remain unsolved.

Wrocław’s government announced that anyone reading her works on public transport could ride for free

We woke the next morning to a bright sun over cornfields and the news that Tokarczuk had taken the prize. Her victory put the ruling party in an awkward position. Minister of Culture Piotr Glinski, who previously declared that he had not read her books, announced that he would return to them. (Law and Justice head Jarosław Kaczyński, for his part, said several years ago that he was reading The Books of Jacob). The right-wing media expressed measured pride in her talent while condemning her attempts to “play politics.” Internet trolls tried to shame the vegetarian laureate by digging up a decades-old photo of her holding a sausage on a skewer.

Lower Silesia. Image: Tookapic via Pexels

Left-leaning Lower Silesia rejoiced unequivocally. Wrocław’s government announced that anyone reading her works on public transport could ride for free. I attended a party in Tokarczuk’s honour at the university, where pictures of her were projected on a wall near tables laden with food and wine. The city’s intellectuals toasted her success late into the evening. The hangover only came on Sunday, when Law and Justice prevailed at the polls.

However, there was a surprise. The Polish liberal and left coalitions had garnered enough votes to win back the senate, impeding the party’s passage of new laws. For the next four years, Law and Justice will continue attempting to write a single-minded history of a conservative nation united against external enemies. Meanwhile, Tokarczuk has announced that she will put the prize money towards establishing a foundation to support Lower Silesia’s writers and translators. She is now more popular than ever as a public figure, an experience she has compared to “getting a new life in a video game.” Her work stands as an alternative vision of Poland’s past and future — one that finds empathy and evolution in the company of ghosts.

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