Primeval and Other Times – Olga Tokarczuk (translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones)

One of the joys of journeying through the world of literature in translation is the discovery of independent small publishers, their simple love of translating and promoting works from their niche areas ensuring quality products, not only in content but also presentation. One such publisher that I have latched onto this year is Twisted Spoon Press, an independent publisher based in Prague, which focuses on translating into English a variety of writing from Central and Eastern Europe. Their books are not only quality writers from languages such as Polish, Czech, Hungarian, Romanian, Slovenian and Slovak, the presentation of the books is also a highlight they are nicely bound and feature stunning cover artworks. Previously I have reviewed “A Gothic Soul” by Jiří Karásek Ze Lvovic (translated by Kirsten Lodge)  from their press and recently purchased Olga Tokarczuk’s “Primeval and Other Times” (translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones) after Tokaczuk won the Nike Prize for her latest work “The Books of Jakub”. In recent weeks she has been subjected to death threats and abuse after she questioned Poland’s “record on tolerance” (see The Scotsman http://www.scotsman.com/news/world/polish-author-olga-tokarczuk-gets-death-threats-1-3917278 )

How this work has remained off of my radar for five years is astonishing, why it didn’t make the translated awards shortlists, or win for that matter, soon after its release in 2010 is quite a miscarriage of justice. It may have something to do with the fact the publisher is Prague based, making the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize out of reach (British based publishers only) or the US based Best Translated Book Award not looking at Twisted Spoon’s books – I do note that this year’s “translation database” from the US has no Twisted Spoon works listed.
Anyway, onto the book itself. “Primeval and Other Times” opens with a description of the Polish town of Primeval, north of the town is Taszów, “busy and dangerous, because it arouses the anxiety of travel” the border is protected by the Archangel Raphael. To the south Jeszkotle marks the border, “it arouses the desire to possess and be possessed” the Archangel Gabriel guard this town. To the West there is the manor house, “the danger on the western border is of sinking into conceit”, Archangel Michael protects this border. And to the East is the White River, “the danger on this side is foolishness, arising from the desire to be too clever”. The border is protected by the Archangel Uriel.
Each section of the book is introduced as “The time of xxx” and we learn of the main inhabitants of the town through their stories:
The angel saw Misia’s birth in an entirely different way from Kucmerka the midwife. An angel generally sees everything in a different way. Angels perceive the world not through the physical forms which it keeps producing and then destroying, but through the meaning and soul of those forms.
The angel assigned to Misia by God saw and aching, caved-in body, rippling into being like a strip of cloth – it was Genowefa’s body as she gave birth to Misia. And the angel saw Misia as a fresh, bright, empty space, in which a bewildered, half conscious sould was just about to appear. When the child opened her eyes, the guardian angel thanked the Almighty. Then the angel’s gaze and the human’s gaze met for the first time, and the angel shuddered as only a bodiless angel can.
The angel received Misia into this world behind the midwife’s back: it cleared a space for her to live in, showed her to the other angels and to the Almighty, and its incorporeal lips whispered: “Look, look, this is my sweet little soul.” It was filled with unusual, angelic tenderness, loving sympathy – that is the only feeling angels harbour. For the Creator has not given them instincts, emotions or needs. If they did have them, they would not be spiritual creatures. They only instinct angels have is the instinct for sympathy. The only feeling angels have is infinite sympathy, heavy as the firmament.
Outside of Misia, we have her mother Genowefa, the mill owner’s wife who is currently running the mill whilst her husband Michał is at war. Eli is a young Jewish mill worker who Genowefa lusts after, Cornspike a young girl who whores in the town, but becomes mystic after a still birth and only rarely appears. We have “a bad man”, rumoured to be a peasant who has reverted to an animal in the forest. And a cast of many more. Even the inanimate objects have a spiritual and metaphorical meaning, with a coffee grinder getting more than two pages explaining the metaphysics of its existence and its importance in this world.
It is strange that God, who is beyond the limits of time, manifests Himself within time and its transformations. If you don’t know “where” God is – and people sometimes ask such questions – you have to look at everything that changes and moves, that doesn’t fit into a shape, that fluctuates and disappears: the surface of the sea, the dances of the sun’s corona, earthquakes, the continental drift, snows melting and glaciers moving, rivers flowing to the sea, seeds germinating, the wind that sculpts mountains, a foetus developing in its mother’s belly, wrinkles near the eyes, a body decaying in the grave, wines maturing, or mushrooms growing after rain.
God is present in every process. God is vibrating in every transformation. Now He is the, now there is less of Him, but sometimes He is not there at all, because God manifests Himself even in the fact that He is not there.
This is a novel of fables, parables, metaphysical, ecclesiastical, ephemeral, with every story having a spiritual mystical feel, but which is fundamentally a tale about a number of families in a town which is they centre of everything, but a place from which you can never leave. There are stories of Primeval being the centre of eight concentric sphere, the labyrinth.
And historically set from prior to World War Two through to post war communism and later Polish developments, it brings up a range of political ideals, what if God doesn’t exist? The communist ideal reaches Poland “under a colourful outer coating everything was merging in collapse, decay, and destruction.”
The quotes I have chosen appear to root the book in theological debate and spiritual beliefs, however it not simply a religious novel, it is a celebration of being alive, a connection to nature, a recognition of all of man’s worst traits, a joyous reflection on simple things, like growing mushrooms, and of course a meditation on one’s ego being the centre of the universe.
Unlike the innumerable books we read about World War Two (especially if you follow the longlist of the Independent Fiction Prize each year, you are certain to get at least one work addressing these historical events), the normal descriptions of the battle dead are written by a different “law”, here by the hand of Dipper the Drowned Man, who generally enjoys laying fog and mist and scaring living people, but coming across the many dead in the forest, he observes their souls.
This work is rich in allegory, these parables address the grinding of time and the inescapable march towards death. The hand of God always shimmering alongside you as a reader, touching the numerous worlds and the manifestations of himself and the likeness of himself.
A wonderfully rich work, a gem I am stunned I hadn’t previously been made aware of, a work that will lead me to eagerly await Olga Tokarczuk’s latest novel “The Books of Jakub”, recent winner of the Nike Prize and being translated by Jennifer Croft, to quote the PEN/Heim Translation Fund and their announcement of a US$3,100 grant to assist with the completion of the translation,
Jennifer Croft’s translation brings to life the historical figure of Jacob Frank, Messianic leader of a mysterious 18th-century Jewish splinter group that believed in “purification through transgression.” (Available for publication) – See more at: http://www.pen.org/blog/announcing-2015-penheim-translation-fund-winners#sthash.8QohNMvH.PSWg6fpD.dpuf
“The Books of Jakub” still awaiting a publisher, with Twisted Spoon Press advising that the work weighing it at over 1000 pages it is too large for them to take on, however it is “under consideration” at a few publsihers and if you’d like a sneak preview head to the Massachusetts Review at https://www.massreview.org/sites/default/files/010_56.3Tokarczuk.pdf
Source of “Primeval and Other Times”, personal copy.


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