By Aleksandra Majak
Olga Tokarczuk, Wydawnictwo Literackie, 2020
‘Literature is built on tenderness toward any being other than ourselves’, said Olga Tokarczuk in a deep, calm voice as she addressed the audience during her Nobel acceptance speech. Every now and then, she’d raise her eyes from under stylish round glasses and give the listeners an attentive — if not tender — look. Now, just over a year later, Tokarczuk’s search for tenderness continues in a collection of literary essays as yet untranslated into English. Taking its title from her acceptance speech, Tender Narrator is bound together by Tokarczuk’s faith in the power of storytelling. ‘A thing that happens and is not told ceases to exist and perishes’, says the novelist, expressing her belief that literature ‘keeps the world in existence’. Even from this short sentence, any reader new to Tokarczuk’s prose would quickly recognise traces of the writer’s general method: transgressing the boundaries of the real and the imagined.
Since her 1993 debut, The Journey of the Book-People, Tokarczuk’s works have explored stories of borderlands. They often happen at the crossroads of languages, flowing between genres and taking place on peripheries that are not only geographical but emotional. Indeed, her keenness for decentralised plotlines took root in her study of psychology. When Fitzcarraldo published her haunting, William Blake-infused eco-thriller Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead (translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones), Tokarczuk told The Guardian that reading Freud in her youth was the first step to becoming a writer. Reading him made her realise that there are countless ways to interpret our experience; that storytelling — akin to the human psyche — is made up of constellatory rather than linear structures. Tokarczuk dwells on this: ‘how are we to write, how are we to structure our story to make it capable of raising this great, constellation form of the world?’ Thus, when early pages of her 2018 Booker Prize-winning novel Flights (translated by Jennifer Croft) mock the dry tone of academic psychology, it isn’t to diminish the field’s achievements, but to juxtapose dynamic, lived experience with our compulsion to quantify and control it. ‘When we’d put rats in a maze, there was always one whose behaviour would contradict the theory, who couldn’t have cared less about our clever hypotheses’, says the author’s alter ego, adding: ‘it would stand up on its little hind legs, absolutely indifferent to the reward at the end of our experimental route’.
Flights refracts into intermittent and flickering subplots which might — especially if it is one’s first encounter with Tokarczuk — prove difficult to devour at times. In the untranslated original, the title Bieguni also refers to the cult of Old Believers, those who maintained that in order to avoid evil, you need to be perpetually in motion. A tiny, curious change of grammar has the potential to transform the title’s meaning into a word that designates ‘extremities on the earth’s axis’ — that is, the North and South Poles. Flights is one of few books I’ve ever listened to, rather than read. Hearing it only deepened the narrative’s polyphony; if possible, I’d recommend reading it in an airport, on a train, a ferry, or any other mode of transport that suspends us somewhere between departures and arrivals.
If reading Tokarczuk is an exercise in boundary-crossing, it’s not without a certain paradox. To cross a boundary is, after all, to admit that it exists. The author draws upon that contradiction in a passage from the untranslated book Final Stories, where one of the characters tells of how a borderland moved during the night to some entirely different place, leaving the people ‘on the wrong side’. The speaker adds, with irony: ‘as humans cannot live without borders, we set off to find one’. This passage reminded me of Paul Ricœur’s note that reading is no longer a trusting voyage made in the company of a reliable narrator, or in fact, reliable borders. Instead, reading is a struggle with an implied author that leads readers reflexively back to themselves. Within this acknowledgement is where the stories begin.
Tokarczuk’s ideas about narrative tenderness bridge the gap between trust and self-reflection, offering a fresh slant on the idea of the ‘hospitable reader’, the role of empathy, and a literary unus mundus where ‘human experience is united’. However, her prose poses questions that are often difficult to grasp without a hint of quixotism. The most complex novels are narrated with unusual ease but in purposefully fragmentary threads, told by unreliable or eccentric characters, or emerging in moments of narrative breaks and silences. As intimate as it might seem, such systems of mutual connections and suspended stories remind me of psychotherapy, where storytelling — reflected in the accepting eye of a therapist — not only proffers a chance for understanding what needs to be told, but also enables us to sink into the narratives of which we’re most in need.
In the essay ‘On Daimonion and Other Writing Motivations’, Tokarczuk asks the reader: ‘have you ever wondered if the source of literary creation could be that something wants to be written down?’ One such example is House of Day, House of Night, her epic novel set in the town of Nowa Ruda in south-western Poland where the narrator-author moved with her husband R. in the 1990s. Situated within walking distance from the Czech border — on terrain that once, before the war, belonged to Germany — the villagers’ lives are turned into an intricate microcosm. There, in and beyond the village, she says hauntingly that ‘everything has begun to whisper. Stones; incessantly humid stairs to the basement; the stream on which the remains of the old watermill were still present’.
It was during the annual Literary Heights Festival in Nowa Ruda, co-hosted by the author, that I felt the atmosphere of Tokarczuk’s prose more vividly. Against the backdrop of the countryside, the connection between the eccentricities of the area and Tokarczuk’s storytelling became incandescently real in the joyous details of this small Silesian town. My own story of the place would come to include an old horse named Halina, a valley covered under the morning mists, the conversations I had over too many cigarettes with festival guests and local people I met staying on the mountaintop. The late-middle-aged man everyone called Uncle could have been a character from a book. As he tried to help with a lost phone, he made a call in a language I couldn’t guess and instructed me not to ask too many questions; he claimed that they (whoever ‘they’ meant) would call us back when a satellite was closer. The satellite, unsurprisingly, never arrived.
House of Day, House of Night begins: ‘the first night I had a dream. I dreamed I was pure sight, without a body or a name. I was suspended high above a valley at some undefined point from which I could see anything’. This desire for a narrator who is all-seeing but whose presence is hidden returns in Tokarczuk’s Nobel speech in the form of a ‘fourth-person-narrator’, one who isn’t merely a grammatical construct but a voice ‘who manages to encompass the perspective of each of the characters, as well as having the capacity to step beyond the horizon of each of them’. As the plots of House of Day, House of Night begin to crystallise and intertwine, this type of narrator subtly speaks through the eccentric wigmaker Marta; the tragic childhood and life of Marek Marek; the monk Paschalis and their calling to write down the life of Kummernis, an androgynous saint also known as St Wilgefortis. One might call this restorative storytelling. Whether real or imagined, the proactive role of the reader in tracing narratives long buried under the dust of time is as evident as it is exciting.
However, many of the writing techniques that come as an advantage in Tokarczuk’s fiction don’t seem to work equally well in the essay genre — a form so notoriously difficult that its French provenance means attempt, sketch, or trial. In non-fiction, even one unnecessary line risks losing the sharpness of a thought. A sentimental aphorism, perfect if spoken by an eccentric character of the novel, can blunt the keen blade of essayism. The main problem with Tender Narrator is its thematic scope. All texts, except the incipient essay ‘Ognosis’, were either published on the pages of leading cultural-liberal magazines in Poland or transcribed from various lectures. In light of these pre-publications, it’s hardly surprising that, stylistically, the essays strike me as incongruent, as lacking in thematic direction.
In one of them, Tokarczuk speaks of her creative methods. In another, she sees translation as a hermeneutic act that enables us to communicate with one another. The following essay debates the ethics of western tourism; yet another text, based on a lecture given by J. M. Coetzee’s fictional persona Elizabeth Costello, talks about empathy and animals’ unjust suffering. Reading all of these together is too much with too little insight. The most compelling parts invite the reader behind-the-scenes of the author’s creative method. Much of this backstage effect shows the evolution of Tokarczuk’s ideas: her reading interests and little eccentricities, as well as joyful literary anecdotes. One such story, ‘Finger in the salt: the short history of my readings’, mentions the first and last book she had ever stolen from the library, a bilingual edition of T. S. Eliot’s Selected Poems.
Still, the essays either reflect and deepen Tokarczuk’s creative method or, to borrow from a review by literary critic and academic Monika Świerkosz, they sketch ‘shallow cartographies of contemporaneity’. This spatial metaphor isn’t coincidental, for the opening image of ‘Ognosis’ positions the reader on the verge of the universe, recalling an unauthored print published in 1888 by the astronomer Camille Flammarion.
The figure in the picture, Tokarczuk writes, ‘reached the limits of our universe and, having poked his head out of earthly sphere, was enchanted by the ordered and distinctly harmonious cosmos’. In this final moment of the journey, peregrinus outstretched the world. Oddly enough, the writer sees the unauthored picture as a perfect metaphor for our present moment. Even so, how and why would this exact print symbolise our ontological status? Falling into overgeneralisations, the text fails to explain.
In his book on essayism, Brian Dillon speaks of the difficulty of achieving what he calls the ‘exactitude and evasion at the same time’ that good essay-writing demands. While reading Tender Narrator, I kept asking myself: ‘when does essayistic evasiveness become essayistic cliché?’ Though each reader will give a different answer, mine is that for the book to have equalled the strength of the Nobel speech, it would have needed more time. Dense, vivid, at moments oddly idealistic, these essays reflect on the realm of creativity and the intrinsic joy of writing. Tokarczuk’s work remains as lucid as it is tangled.
ALEKSANDRA MAJAK reads for a DPhil in comparative literature at New College. While travelling, she once ended up in a hospital because she got attacked by a fierce squirrel.
Art by Isabella Lill