Nobel laureate Olga Tokarczuk: why populist nostalgia will pass
Soon after winning the Nobel Prize in Literature last October, Olga Tokarczuk dropped into a hardware store with visions of buying some candles. Instead, she was promptly mobbed.
“People started coming up to me, touching me, hugging me. Someone started crying. Everyone was looking at me and it was horrible. It was also really nice, of course, but after a bit I got scared,” the Polish writer recalls wryly. Keeping a low profile since then has not been easy. “Recently we went to a shop and I disguised myself. I let my hair down, put on a beret, put on sunglasses. It was before Christmas and I was buying walnuts, and a lady came up to me and asked: ‘Mrs Olga Tokarczuk?’ That broke me down completely.”
She is not the first laureate to find literature’s highest accolade disruptive. When Wislawa Szymborska, the previous Pole to receive the honour, won in 1996, her friends branded it the “Nobel tragedy”. Ill at ease with the accompanying attention, Szymborska did not write another poem for several years.
Tokarczuk seems more robust. But as I glance around the restaurant in her adopted hometown of Wroclaw that she has selected for our lunch, I cannot help wondering whether it is as much the secluded location as the Korean-Japanese menu that has attracted her. Tucked away behind a railway embankment and a liquor store altruistically offering its clientele 24-hour access to 303 different types of beer, Naru is quiet enough that I can hear the faint hiss from a nearby gas-lamp.
Clad in a bright red dress-cum-hoody and with her dark brown dreadlocks piled up in trademark style on top of her head, Tokarczuk is not in camouflage today. But the waitress who materialises to take our order does so without fanfare. Tokarczuk asks for a pot of green tea and tells her to give us another 10 minutes to work out what to eat. I opt for sparkling water and turn the conversation to Tokarczuk’s writing.
Like most things in Tokarczuk’s bitterly divided homeland, her success has drawn mixed reactions. Sales of her works at Poland’s biggest chain of bookstores rocketed on the news of her Nobel, with 12,000 orders in just 10 hours. Liberal newspapers splashed her victory across their front pages. Wroclaw — Poland’s fourth-biggest city — broadcast the award ceremony on giant screens in its medieval market square, and for three days made public transport free for anyone carrying her books.
But for the country’s nationalist right, Tokarczuk’s international recognition was an affront. An outspoken feminist, atheist, environmentalist and leftwinger unafraid of confronting the darker episodes of Polish history, Tokarczuk has long been their piñata. Nationalist critics have branded her a traitor, an eco-terrorist and a “Pole-eater”, as well as several other epithets that have significantly broadened my Polish vocabulary. The day after her Nobel was announced, a disgruntled non-fan briefly managed to change her Wikipedia description from “Polish writer” to “anti-Polish writer”.
Krzycka 1B, 53-019 Wroclaw
Green tea 8 zloty
Mineral water 4 zloty
Sushi bento 39 zloty
Tempura maki bento 39 zloty
Total 90 zloty (£18)
I ask Tokarczuk if she considers herself a political author. “Whether I like it or not, I am, especially in Poland,” she replies. “The views I have, the books I write, are read as political, or even as manifestos. In today’s world everything is political. We are a statement — our clothes, haircut, the way we act. I think 40 or 50 years ago, being political meant belonging to a political party. Today life itself is political.”
After several abortive efforts to catch our attention, our waitress homes in successfully. Tokarczuk, a vegetarian who is sometimes a vegan, says she likes Korean food for the options it offers non-carnivores. But today, she has to make an exception as it turns out that, unlike on her previous visit, Naru has no vegetarian main courses. After some deliberation, she picks a combination involving miso soup followed by sushi, kimchi and green salad. I opt for another combination that promises the same, plus sashimi.
I return to the collision of politics and art, and ask what Tokarczuk made of the furore over the awarding of the 2019 literature Nobel to Peter Handke. (Handke’s and Tokarczuk’s prizes were announced simultaneously after a scandal at the Swedish Academy delayed the 2018 award). The Austrian author has been accused of minimising the mass murder of Muslims during the Yugoslav wars, and spoke at the funeral of Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic.
Tokarczuk does not have a clear-cut answer. Handke, she says, is “an amazing writer” who was very important for her generation growing up in 1970s central Europe. “Everyone was reading him and he brought a lot into literature. On the other hand, his political views . . . or rather [his views] on this particular event, are controversial. I have a completely different opinion on Milosevic and what happened during the war in Yugoslavia,” she continues, before criticising the aggressive way journalists treated him when he tried to explain his position at a press conference after the award was announced.
“Education, school should prepare us not to morally judge everyone, but to be able to find our own truth in this world of various points of view,” she adds, when I ask whether we can separate artists from their works. “I’m not one of those people who easily judges something or someone. I’ve been thinking about it for a long time, and I think it’s one of the driving forces of my writing. My profession is to observe the world from unusual perspectives, unusual points of view. Judging is against literature.”
Our miso soup arrives, followed rapidly by sushi. The soup is excellent, but my sashimi seems a bit bland, probably because I have made the cardinal error of eating the spicy kimchi first. We call a truce on literary politics and the conversation turns to Tokarczuk’s dog, Nina. Tokarczuk is a passionate believer in animal rights: the theme often crops up in her work, and she spent part of the Nobel gala dinner trying to persuade the King of Sweden to give up hunting. She recounts one occasion when she was travelling and missed her dog so much that she dropped into a museum to look at pictures of animals instead. “I really needed it,” she recalls, before embarking on a riff about canine psychology.
Now 58, Tokarczuk has been a household name in Poland for two decades. The child of two teachers, she studied psychology and worked as a therapist, before deciding she was “more neurotic” than her patients and focusing on writing. Her breakthrough came in 1996 with her third novel, Primeval and Other Times, a tale with more than a hint of magical realism that follows a fictional Polish village (guarded rather laxly by four angels) through the trials of the 20th century. Flights, a mix of meditations on travel and the body interspersed with short stories, won the Nike Award, Poland’s top literary prize, in 2008. The Books of Jacob, an epic on the rise and fall of Jacob Frank, an 18th-century Polish Jew who proclaimed himself the Messiah, won it again in 2015.
It is only more recently, however, and thanks to translators Antonia Lloyd-Jones and Jennifer Croft, that the Anglosphere has been able to enjoy a broad range of Tokarczuk’s work. Flights debuted in English in 2017, and promptly won the International Booker Prize. The translation of Drive Your Plough Over the Bones of the Dead, a genre-expanding murder mystery melding astrology, the poetry of William Blake and animal rights, followed in 2018. The Books of Jacob is due next year.
Tokarczuk’s Nobel award cites her “narrative imagination that with encyclopedic passion represents the crossing of boundaries as a form of life”. It feels apt, in terms of the wanderings of her characters, her use of myth, and her evident delight in toying with form and genre. She beams when I mention the citation. “I really like it, especially ‘as a form of life’. It sounds kind of biological, as if this is our deep, innate need.”
Tokarczuk’s interest in crossing boundaries is particularly pronounced in Flights. The novel takes its Polish title (“Bieguni”) from a sect that believed staying in motion warded off evil, and ranges from vignettes on travel psychology, and a mini-treatise on airports as the modern world’s city-states, to the tale of a man searching for his wife and child after losing them on holiday abroad. “Blessed is he who leaves,” a character says at one point.
Tokarczuk wrote this paean to mobility in 2007 — a time that looks increasingly like the high-water mark of the 21st century’s faith in globalisation and open borders. Since then the financial crisis and its political aftershocks have ushered in a nationalist turn that has helped detach Britain from the EU and install Donald Trump in the White House. In central Europe, the 2015 migrant crisis has been met by a surge in anti-migrant sentiment and clamour for tighter border controls. So if Tokarczuk were writing Flights today, would it be different?
She nods. “[It] would be darker. I thought at that time that I was describing the world that was to come. That we had reached a level of openness that would only develop further. In that sense Flights is no longer a timely book. It no longer describes the world that we live in. I would never have expected such nostalgia for nationality, for national identity,” she says as I polish off the last of my California rolls, which are good enough that I wish I had ordered more.
Tokarczuk puts the shift down to uncertainty and fear. But she does not think it is permanent. “Maybe for 10 years or so [this nostalgia for nation states] will go back and forth, populists will make use of it. But it’s an anachronistic project. We simply no longer understand our identity this way. We cannot live with only one identity. We all have many identities, they are liquid.”
This fluid view of the world is fundamental to Tokarczuk. It is the “in-between”, the grey areas, that interest her, she says, explaining how she has often considered the question of when day becomes night. “There is so much more truth there than in the black and white,” she says. “I try to see the world rather as a continuum, and not one thing or another. Anyone who has experience with borders, not only national ones, sees the artificiality of people arbitrarily drawing them.”
That is certainly true in central Europe, where borders have been drawn and redrawn with the tides of history. Wroclaw, where we are meeting, was ruled variously by Poland, Bohemia, Hungary and the Habsburgs, before being annexed by Prussia. After the second world war, it was transferred to Poland. The German population was expelled or left, replaced by Poles, many of whom had themselves been displaced from land taken by the USSR.
Tokarczuk once said such disrupted histories made linear storytelling impossible in central Europe. When I ask what she meant, she says she is planning an essay on the topic. “In Poland telling stories is completely different [from in the UK],” she continues, recalling her amazement on a writers’ retreat in Scotland when she discovered that the furniture was hundreds of years old. “Families were killed, continuities were interrupted. History had no continuity at all. Like here in Wroclaw — there was one world, and now there is a different one, and an unmentioned caesura. People don’t know their past so well because they have been displaced so much, and this manifests itself in our literature. Some things cannot be told without using irony and the grotesque.”
It is not just on Poland’s literature that this turbulent past has left deep marks. Poland’s politics is in the grip of a semi-permanent battle over history. Nationalists have long pushed a narrative that emphasises Polish suffering and heroism, but glosses over less glorious episodes. When Tokarczuk said after winning the Nike for The Books of Jacob that, contrary to the benign view that some Poles have of their history, “we did [terrible things] as colonisers . . . as slave owners or murderers of Jews,” she received death threats, and her publishers had to hire bodyguards to protect her.
The government has also put pressure on cultural institutions whose views it dislikes. Does Tokarczuk feel that artists are under pressure? “Theatre is a difficult bone to swallow for this government, which thinks differently politically and ideologically,” she replies. “But as a writer I don’t have that impression. I’ve never met with censorship in any newspaper or magazine — self-censorship is the real threat.”
We have been talking for more than two hours, and the restaurant is now almost completely empty. My sushi is long gone, but Tokarczuk appears defeated by hers and is considering having the remnants packed up to take home. One eye on the clock, I ask her what she plans next. Tokarczuk is famous for immersing herself in her subjects: she spent almost a decade on The Books of Jacob, and signed up for an anatomy course to help her with the bodily sections of Flights. Is it true that she already has her next few novels mapped out? She smiles and refuses to let any spoilers slip. But she admits that four novels have “crystallised in my head — one of them big”.
“I would like to do something unusual after the Nobel, since everyone is now expecting something serious, profound,” she continues impishly as I try to wheedle out more information. “I always liked playing with the genres. As I said in my Nobel speech, the division into genres will start to blur. For us writers, this transitional area is very attractive, at least for me. Playing with forms, deconstructing them, having fun with them. I always envied people who wrote good horror stories; I think it’s very difficult to scare people.”
Our time is up. Tokarczuk’s husband has arrived to pick her up, and unobtrusively polishes off the remains of her sushi. I pay the bill and wonder whether she is really considering writing a horror story. For an author whose work already encompasses everything from the epic to the mystery novel, it would somehow be appropriate — and perhaps one more example of Tokarczuk crossing boundaries “as a way of life”.
James Shotter is the FT’s central Europe correspondent. Additional reporting by Agata Majos
Follow @FTLifeArts on Twitter to find out about our latest stories first. Listen to our culture podcast, Culture Call, where editors Gris and Lilah dig into the trends shaping life in the 2020s, interview the people breaking new ground and bring you behind the scenes of FT Life & Arts journalism. Subscribe on Apple, Spotify, or wherever you listen.