February 2010

Angela DeMarco

fiction

Primeval and Other Times by Olga Tokarczuk, translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones

Before any of her books had been translated into English, Olga Tokarczuk worried in an interview on polishwriting.net: “I always have misgivings... about whether what I write is translatable into the experience of someone from another country.” With the publication of Primeval and Other Times, a book of astounding universality, English language readers can see for themselves just how well Tokarczuk’s work survives the transformation. Though only one of Tokarczuk’s other eleven books is available in English, Primeval and Other Times is widely regarded as her masterwork, and it fits well at Twisted Spoon Press, a Prague-based English language publisher with a knack for bringing out gem-like Eastern European works with a surreal twist.

Primeval and Other Times follows the inhabitants of the Polish town of Primeval in alternating chapters from 1914 to the 1980s. For as universal-feeling as the book is, its action takes place against the specific backdrop of twentieth-century Polish history. Occupying German and Russian soldiers both play their parts in the novel, a historicity characteristic of Twisted Spoon’s titles. The story centers loosely on the Niebieski and Boski families, particularly mill owner Genowefa Niebieski and her daughter Misia, though many other characters are well-developed and central to the plot. The town itself, which the first line advises us “is the place at the centre of the universe,” is so foregrounded that it nearly takes on the aspect of another main character.

Tokarczuk’s narrative voice is firm and earthy, yet flexible enough to convey the wide range of characters with warmth and humanity. Antonia Lloyd-Jones’s translation feels natural and at ease as it rambles over the town and its people, their kaleidoscopic and tangled lives. From the perpetually discontented Squire Popielski, who discovers that “the vessel had broken inside him, full of the despair he had always carried within him like hemlock”; to Florentynka the madwoman, who “didn’t regard herself like a lunatic at all. The moon was persecuting her like any normal persecutor”; to the roofer Old Boski, who returns to the shingles of the same roof every day “to settle on them like a freshwater mussel”; Tokarczuk reveals the (often peculiar) natures of her characters with a pert and protean creativity.

A fair one-line description of Primeval and Other Times would be: a family saga set in a sort of mythologized backwater that functions as a historical microcosm. If that sounds familiar, it’s because you’ve read Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, a conspicuous influence. Following in García Márquez’s footsteps leaves Tokarczuk big shoes to fill, and, amazingly, she does, largely by virtue of her authoritative narrative voice and a skill for expertly-drawn portraiture.

For Tokarczuk, there is a continuity between the wondrousness of reality and the reality of wonders. For example, the everyday occurence of Genowefa coming home from her work at the mill creates a magical-seeming transformation: “Flour settled on her hair and eyelashes, so as she stood at the mirror each evening she saw an old woman in it.” But the fantastical Christian mythology of the town’s geography is described with little flourish: “To the south the town of Jeszkotle marks the border, with its church, old people’s home and low-rise tenements surrounding a muddy marketplace... The Archangel Gabriel guards Primeval on the town side.” To avoid the pitfalls of reducing all translated literatures to similar elements, no matter how disparate they may really be (though Tokarczuk’s mythologizing does bear many similarities to García Márquez’s magical realism, and almost certainly was to some degree inspired by it), as a trained psychologist, Tokarczuk also cites the heavy influence of Jungian mythmaking.

Primeval and Other Times
is an overtly philosophical book, but not a polemical one. Tokarczuk allows various strains of philosophical thought to surface through her characters: Optimism, nihilism, determinism, and free will coexist without privilege, and though we may be sermonized by the preacher, his words have no more authority than any of the other characters we meet. Furthermore, since the philosophy we encounter in the book arises organically from the lives of the townspeople, it never feels unanchored or purely intellectual.

One of the deeply pleasing and transgressive novelties of Primeval and Other Times is its willingness to reconsider assumptions we usually make when talking about God. Is God temporary? Evil? Changing? Don’t get me wrong -- Tokarczuk does not come off as inflammatory (though irreverent, certainly). It’s just that Primeval is the center of the universe; God exists within it, and like everything else found in Primeval, God is subject to consideration. In a representatively forthright passage, a Russian soldier ponders, “‘Either God exists and has always existed, or’ -- here he added the second finger -- ‘God doesn’t exist and never has. Or else’ -- the third appeared -- ‘God used to exist, but no longer does. And finally,’ -- here he poked all four fingers at Izydor — ‘God doesn’t yet exist and has yet to appear.’”

A book whose mission is to depict the world in its fullness, with all of its contradictions, impossibilities, and miracles, Primeval and Other Times expresses real sadness at the inability to comprehend the universe in its totality. No matter how expansive her view, Primeval still has its limits, and “he who has once seen the world’s borders will suffer his imprisonment most painfully of all.” Whatever darkness or painful truths we may encounter there, it’s a pleasure to get this glimpse into Primeval.

Primeval and Other Times by Olga Tokarczuk, translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones
Twisted Spoon Press
ISBN: 8086264351
248 Pages