Olga Tokarczuk – Women In Translation

As regular visitors to this blog would know, I have supported and been involved in “Women In Translation Month”, since its establishment three years ago. An absolutely brilliant initiative started  by Meytal Radzinski (or @Biblibio or Twitter) and you can read a whole lot more about it at her blog, this year’s details at the 2016 Women In Translation Month page here.
Last year I had a look at a number of women writers who are celebrated in their home Nations but their works are yet to make their way into English, I ran a number of occasional posts titled “Women (Not) In Translation”. This year I may highlight a few of these again, however my occasional posts, whilst I am finishing up a novel written by a woman, or putting the finishing touches on a new review, are going to lean towards highlighting a few works that are available on the internet.
When spreading your wings and trying new books by writers you have not read before can sometimes be a disaster waiting to happen, while your searches of favourite blogs or reviewers may point you towards something that appears interesting, there is always the risk that the style of writing is just not your thing. Something that may assist is reading a short story or two by the writer in question before investing your money and effort in a full blown novel.
One writer I have really enjoyed reading about as well as reading her works Olga Tokarczuk from Poland. Her novel “Primeval and Other Times” (translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones) I reviewed in December last year soon after she won the Polish Nike Prize for her latest book “The Books of Jakub”.
Tokarczuk was born in Sulechów Poland in 1962, a recipient of all of Poland’s top literary awards, she “is one of the most critically acclaimed authors of her generation”. Holding a psychology degree from the University of Warsaw, she initially practiced as a therapist and “often cites C.G. Jung as an inspiration for her work, in which mythmaking has become a hallmark.” (Quotes from Twisted Spoon Press website, publisher of “Primeval and Other Times”).
Whilst generally a literary award from Poland wouldn’t generate headlines, the 2015 Nike Prize did as Tokarczuk soon afterwards began receiving death threats and was subjected to abuse, after she questioned Poland’s “record on tolerance”. (See The Scotsman)
“The Books of Jakub” runs to over 900 pages, is “a great journey through seven borders, five languages and three major religions, not counting the small ones”, and is currently being translated into English, however my current understanding is that there is still no English language publisher. I am eagerly awaiting news of a publisher as I will probably be one of the first readers in the queue to purchase a copy once it is released.
If you are interested in an excerpt from the novel, translated as “The Books of Jacob” by Jennifer Croft, eight pages were published by the Massachusetts Review and are available here 
Bomb Magazine has published an excerpt from Olga Tokarczuk’s 2008 Nike Award winning book  “Runners”(again translated by Jennifer Croft) here 
In June this year Bomb Magazine also published another Jennifer Croft translation of Olga Tokarczuk’s, the short story “Late Saturday to Early Sunday” 
Interviews, translated into English, with Tokarczuk can be found here:
A few tastes of her work for you to check out in case you’re interested in exploring her work further. Two of her novels are available in English, both translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, “Primeval and Other Times” (published by Twisted Spoon Press) and “House of Day, House of Night” (published by Northwestern University Press as part of their “Writings from an Unbound Europe” collection).

I Burn Paris – Bruno Jasieński (translated by Soren A. Gauger & Marcin Piekoszewski)

Outside of Poland, Bruno Jasieński is a little known name, and I can imagine that inside of Poland he’s probably an obscure name, although he has a street named after him, and an annual “Brunonalia” literary festival is named after him, both in Klimontów. But when you read his biography, let alone his works, it is amazing that he is not more well known.
A Polish-Jew, he is considered one of the founders of the Polish futurist movement and moved to Paris in 1925, listing three reasons for leaving Poland; (1) he had graduated from university and was due to serve twenty months of compulsory military service, (2) he was being sued for alleged blasphemy during one of his poetry readings, which could have resulted in a year or two in prison, and (3) he was an unemployed literary graduate whole scandalous reputation scarcely promised him work as a high-school teacher. Whilst there his novel Palę Paryż was serialised by the leftist L’Humanité newspaper in French as “Je Brûel Paris” (“I Burn Paris”), the title reportedly being a rebuttable to Paul Morand’s pamphlet “Je Bruel Moscow”, (“bruler” having the idiomatic meaning, to “travel through quickly”). Paul Monard’s (who would later collaborate with the Nazis) pamphlet was a short anti-Semitic and anti-Soviet ’s satire. The novel was quickly translated into Russian, where the first edition of 140,000 copies sold out in a matter of days, prompting a second edition of 220,000 copies. In 1929 the original Polish text was published in Warsaw, but Jasieński was expelled from France for the novel and importation of the book was forbidden on the grounds it “exuded blind and stupid hatred for Western European culture”. Unable to be admitted to Belgium or Luxumborg, Jasieński stayed in Frankfurt Germany until the extradition order was withdrawn, only to return to France and be expelled again for communist agitation.
Settling in Leningrad in the USSR in 1929 he accepted Soviet citizenship, moving to Moscow in 1932. As a strong supporter of Genrikh Yagoda’s political purges within the writers’ community, Jasieński lost support when the Stalin appointed director of the Soviet’s security and intelligence agency was himself arrested, charged with the crimes of wrecking, espionage, Trotskyism and conspiracy, found guilty and shot. Jasieński’s first wife, Klara Arem, who had had an affair with Yagoda, was also arrested, sentenced to death and executed, as a result Jasieński was expelled from the All-Union Communist Party (the Bolsheviks). He was fighting accusations of being a Polish spy and an enemy of the people and was arrested on 31 July 1937, and after being sentenced to 15 years in a labour camp he was instead executed on 17 September 1938. Surviving letters from his time in prison still remain, they are written directly to Stalin, begging for clemency, and listing torture such as fingernails being pulled out, teeth kicked in. Jasieński’s second wife, Anna Berin, was arrested in 1939 and spent seventeen years in various Soveit gulags, and his son was stripped of his identity and sent to an orphanage, but managed to escape during World War II. After the war he went on to become a prominent figure in Russia’s criminal underworld. Eventually discovering his true heritage, he took a Polish name and became active in various illegal organizations in opposition to the Communist regime. He was killed in the 1970s.
This all reads like a film script and although a lengthy introduction to a review of “I Burn Paris” it is valuable information to understand the political and historical motivations of the author.
Our opening chapter tells of Pierre, one of many to lose his job in the period of economic decline, he doesn’t receive the correct paperwork, cannot receive welfare and wanting to buy his girlfriend a pair of slippers to wear to the ball he can’t as he has “exactly three sous in his pocket”. He waits outside her home to explain his predicament, but to add to his woes she doesn’t come home. It doesn’t take long for the reader to realise that they’re in for a dark novel, an opening of despair;
Somewhere far off, in some invisible tower, a clock struck two. Slowly, like schoolboys who had learned their lessons by heart, the other towers repeated it from above the pulpits of the rooftops. Then silence again. His heavy eyelids fluttered clumsily like insects caught on flypaper, flapping upward for a moment, only to drop once more. Somewhere on the faraway bumpy pavement a first tentative cart began to rumble. Soon the garbage wagons would appear. The naked, coarse cobblestones – the bald, scalped skulls of the masses buried alive – would greet them with a long, clattering scream, passed from mouth to mouth as far as imaginable down the endless length of the street. Black men with long spears would run across the sidewalks, sinking their blades into the lanterns’ quivering hearts.
The dry rattle of aching iron. The groggy, waking city struggling to life the heavy eyelids of its shutters.
Very early on in this novel I thought of the despair in Knut Hamsun’s “Hunger”, which I reviewed recently as another entry on my Classics Club listing;
His greedy, tamed hunger lay at the threshold of his consciousness like a trained dog, without crossing over uninvited, content that every thought that hoped to enter his mind had to tread on itfirst.
Also hallucinating, as the protagonist in “Hunger” does, our protagonist here is homeless, hungry, wet and cold, and finds warmth inside a bordello;
From time to time a man would raise himself slowly, staring at one of the angels surrounding him, his eyes wide with astonishment – as though in her face he had suddenly seen that of another, someone familiar and long lost. Then the couple, taking each other by the hand and tracing slow semicircles with their feet, approached the altar of the counter, where in exchange for the mystical writ of a banknote the motionless Buddha of the puffy feminine visage made a ceremonial, liturgical gesture and handed the woman the symbolic ring of the number and the narrow stole of a towel. The betrothed then ascended in the majestic spirals of a twisting, celestial staircase, guided only by fluttering butterfly glances from the odd women wrapped in furs.
It is understandable that these descriptions would cause controversy in the 1920’s, decadent, futurist literature on display. Pierre deranged with hunger, assaults a man who he believes has just been in a hotel with his missing girlfriend, and our protagonist ends up in prison, but with no work, no food, no lodgings, this is a blessing. Whilst in prison he is forced to share a cell with the numerous worker protestors and as a result he learns;
Back in the factory Pierre had heard long and monotonous stories about this new world, a world with neither rich nor oppressed, where the factories would be owned by the workers, and labor would change from a form of slavery to a hymn, to hygiene for the liberated body. He didn’t believe them. No one would budge the diabolical machine, not one inch! It had grown deep into the earth. It had been running since time immemorial, ever since it had been set in motion. Seize the cogs with your bare hands? It wouldn’t stop, it would just rip off your hands. He saw blood on soiled bandages, hands bound in bloody rags, and he thought: another exercise in futility. The battered bodies were flung off the transmission belt and onto the sidelines, behind the wall, with a flick of the wrist.
Remembering that this work was written in 1928 the imagery is quite astonishing;
If the miles of film of the average human life could for once be played in reverse, the eye, like an all-seeing probe plunged in the fathomless stream of human consciousness, would hit upon a point somewhere deep down, a hard bedrock, a fact, an event, an image, and undefined and flickering sensation. It would be tattered and faded, yet inflicted with such a strange hue that the current of time flowing through one’s life would absorb its indefinable color for good.
Who we believe to be our main protagonist, Pierre, quickly meets his demise and we then move to a new hemisphere and the memories of P’an Tsiang-Kuei, a hatred of western civilisation, his life as a street urchin, his distrust of Europe and their pursuit of the holy grail, knowledge, and his discovery of the industrial age.
“White people like money. You have to work for money. White people don’t like to work. They like other people to work for them. Where they live, machines and their own kind, whites, do the work for them. But there’s never enough money for the white people. That’s why they came to China and yoked up all the Chinese to work for them. The Emperor and the Mandarins helped them. That’s why Chinese people live in such poverty, because they have to work for both eh Mandarins and the Emperor – and above all, for the white people, who need lots of money, and so there’s nothing left for us.”
Nothing is sacred in the book, all of societies norms are put to the sword, for example Religion;
Oh, as Father Francis said not more than a week ago: “Easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” And every Sunday he accepted all sorts of presents from rich white people, wine and fruit, and spoke with them cordially for hours at a time, and when they finally left he would see them to their cars, not troubled in the slightest that they wouldn’t be entering the Kingdom of Heaven. Clearly it wasn’t so terribly important if someone was entering the Kingdom of Heaven or not, if the rich fold weren’t so eager to get there, and Father Francis didn’t see much of a problem with this. Obviously this Kingdom of Heaven wasn’t anything special if only the poor folk were being sent there. No, P’an didn’t much care for this docile god. The rich fold and the Caesars had clearly bought him out, so that he would convince people to be subservient. He could set an example by letting himself be beaten to his heart’s content. If he was in fact God, it would hardly hurt. And he could die as much as he like. No, you couldn’t believe in a god like that. That kind of god was a scam.
As always, at this blog, I don’t want to give away too much of this novel’s plot, however the events that transpire in Paris cause the inhabitants to declare independent states, Chinese, Jewish, Russian, Monarchists, Anglo-American, and each of these groups leaders are revealed in differing detail. Futuristic to an extent that it reminded me (slightly) of Huxley’s “Brave New World”, or in part Orwell’s “1984”, even the recent novel by Houellebecq “Submission” as well as the cinema of Sergei Eisenstein or Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis”.
Switching between decadence, futurism, manifesto, propaganda and remembering that this was written between two World Wars and prior to the Great Depression this is a revolutionary work. Yes, a deeply political work, references to Karl Marx are not uncommon, and as a result it is no surprise to learn that it was met with uproar, the obvious political leanings of our author and the majority of the action taking place in dark settings or at night, we have the shadows pervading people’s lives. A capitalist system in decline, a dystopian future with utopia an elusive, but realistic possibility, this work is thoroughly recommended.
The cover is also an interesting design, the artwork by Dan Meyer, a play on the geometric designs of the art deco era, another wonderful publication by the independent Twisted Spoon Press, based in Prague, they are slowly becoming one of my preferred suppliers of translated works that enlighten.

Source – personal copy.

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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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