Olga Tokarczuk approaches fiction in a way uniquely suited to the fragmentation of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, collapsing boundaries among time periods and countries. Born in 1962 in Sulechów, Poland, Tokarczuk writes what she calls “constellation novels,” blending memoir, fiction, and lyric sketches into a single narrative. In Primeval and Other Times (2010), translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, a Polish village watched over by angels endures the wars of the twentieth century; in Flights (2017), which was translated by Jennifer Croft and won the 2018 Booker Prize, the settings range from a modern airport to a stagecoach carrying the composer Frédéric Chopin’s disembodied heart. When the Swedish Academy named Tokarczuk the recipient of the 2018 Nobel Prize in Literature, her longtime translator Croft wrote, “Olga is the Nobel Laureate. She’s the one the prize was made for.”
The imminent publication of Croft’s translation of Tokarczuk’s magnum opus, The Books of Jacob, will allow English language readers to appreciate the work that the Swedish Academy cited specifically in their awarding of the Nobel Prize. It’s a monumental book, one that took Tokarczuk around ten years to write and Croft nearly five to translate. Based on the real-life historical figure of Jacob Frank, an eighteenth-century Polish Jew who declared himself the Messiah and went on to found the heretical sect of Frankism, which mixed Kabbalah mysticism and Catholic trinitarianism, the book is at once a portrait of a complicated man and a study of Central Europe’s vexed relationship with modernity. (The page numbers move backwards—from 965 to 1—a nod to Hebrew books, which are read from right to left.*) Though the novel ends in the Enlightenment, Tokarczuk’s portrayals of both Christian anti-Semitism and the Frankists’ internal power dynamics raise deep questions about Polish history, feminism, and the nature of religious faith that remain relevant today.
In December, I corresponded with Tokarczuk over email in anticipation of the release of the English translation of the The Books of Jacob. We discussed national borders, the Polish hard right, writing about women, and how the internet has changed our approach to literature. My questions, and Tokarczuk’s answers, were translated into Polish and English by Croft.
Rhian SasseenThe Books of Jacob is a historical novel following the real-life Jacob Frank, the founder of the heretical Frankist sect in eighteenth-century Poland. During your research, did you come across anything that surprised you or fundamentally changed your understanding of Poland's past?
Olga TokarczukBefore writing The Books of Jacob, I wasn’t especially interested in the history of this period. Thus the entire research process that I undertook was an intellectually and emotionally thrilling adventure. For example, I had never really thought about the fact that the Republic of Poland (now known as the First Republic) bordered the Ottoman Empire. I also didn’t realize how multicultural and multiethnic that country was, how much the different influences intertwined. I was amazed by the mobility of my heroes, the Jewish merchants. They were people constantly on the move, living at the intersection of languages and cultures, omnipresent in a way. But even the Polish aristocracy lived in constant motion, visiting their estates, keeping tabs on their contacts and keeping up their influence. I came to see a world in motion, colorful, interesting, interested. Studying history in school gave me an image of the past as a static, or even petrified, reality that from time to time was sundered by some tragic event or other: wars, uprisings, pandemics. That turned out not to be true.
I was surprised by the attitudes of eighteenth-century people to sex and corporeality—after all, this was a pre-Victorian era, without any doubt much less prudish than our own.
I also came to understand that the fact that I’m some ten generations removed from those people doesn’t signify so much. What we treat as the distant past is actually closer to us than we think. I found my protagonists to be remarkably similar to people today.
RSThe idea of borders appears frequently in your work. The characters of Flights
crisscross international borders in their travels; the fictional town of Primeval in Primeval and Other Times
experiences occupation during wartime; and the boundaries between languages are frequently troubled in The Books of Jacob, particularly when it comes to its protagonist, in whose speech “you can [always] detect a foreign accent,” no matter the language he’s using. What is the influence of borders on your writing?
OTThe border is one of the most amazing ideas humanity has ever devised: to cut yourself off, delimit the zone of your influences, divide into “us” and “them.” Especially in Central Europe, where I am from and where I live and where the borders have ceaselessly changed depending on political shifts. Most often borders have been devised by people arbitrarily, often disregarding natural characteristics and ignoring ethnicity or trade among neighbors.
For more than half of my life, I’ve lived not far from the border between Poland and Czechia. I’ve watched it being guarded, and I’ve seen how much energy and money that takes. I experienced Poland’s entrance into the Schengen Area, when “my” border was transformed into an internal one. That day it simply ceased to be patrolled, as the soldiers disappeared, and with them, the border, too. Suddenly you could walk into the forest and cross back and forth as many times as you pleased, with impunity (whereas at one time, we feared even approaching the border).
I am most interested in what lies between boundaries, between simple distinctions like black and white, native and foreign, night and day.
Perhaps all this made me sensitive to the fact that people are willing to institute arbitrary divisions that are supposed to help organize the world and make it seem intellectually safer: slightly oversimplified, but at least easy to comprehend. Some time ago I traveled to the border between North and South Korea. Nature has reclaimed this strip of indefatigably surveilled no-man’s-land. On either side, aimed guns, barbed wire, guard towers, and between them, in the lush grass, plants blooming, butterflies and birds flying, animals living in sweet, trusting bliss. It’s one of the most incredible images my memory has preserved. As a writer, I am most interested in what lies between boundaries, between simple distinctions like black and white, native and foreign, night and day. Simple categories have always tired my brain.
RSThe Poland you portray in The Books of Jacob is a bustling, cosmopolitan, and multiethnic society on the verge of the Enlightenment, starkly different from the Poland envisioned by today’s conservatives. You received death threats from Polish nationalists following a 2014 televised interview for the book during which you criticized the country’s refusal to discuss the darker elements of its past. How has the rise of the Polish hard right in recent years impacted your writing?
OTIt is a terribly surreal feeling to speak the truth, to say how things were (and to be able to prove it) and, just by doing so, to awaken some uncontrollable rage and hatred in other people. I upset some taboo recognized not only by people who think in a way that is diametrically opposed to how I think (and who have a totally different vision of the world), but also by people like me: people who shared my opinions but had determined that political subjects should be broached more delicately and indirectly, with more care for context. The attacks were painful because I hadn’t expected them at all. Yet I also received an incredible outpouring of support and the incident started a conversation about Polish history. Today no one in their right mind opposes what I said then.
I do think, however, that the trauma of being the victim of that kind of verbal abuse remains—and this problem affects an ever-greater number of people. We are losing a profound and miraculous gift: a sense of security and trust in the world.
RSEccentric, mysterious, or transgressive older women—such as Yente, Jacob’s grandmother, or Gitla, one of his earliest followers—are often central to your novels. How do you approach writing your female characters?
Every person born a woman must work incredibly hard to get away from predetermined roles.
OTI have been an obsessive reader my entire life. I remember what a trial it was—perhaps not one I was fully conscious of at first—to find a female figure in literature with whom I might identify as a young girl, a teenager, a woman. Women primarily played their social roles, appearing in books as innocent, idealized sweethearts, mothers, mistresses, femmes fatales, victims of violence, prostitutes, women in the service industry (maids, waitresses, etc.). Very rarely did a female figure have the status of a complete, individualized, thinking, acting, responsible, moral, or philosophical being.
Today I think that all the great classics of literature can have a depressing effect on the emotional and intellectual development of women. People used to think that women were simple and highly uncomplicated psychological systems. To the category of “woman,” society has often ascribed banality, repeatability, interchangeability. Their development was “natural”—meaning women simply grew into the roles they were supposed to play. It was the man who had to face real challenges in his psychological development. I believe this to be a huge misunderstanding. Women must make an enormous effort to escape the gravity of that Great Omission and take up the work of a personal and individual emergence into a world that has been divided into individualized subjects called “men” and not very clearly defined “women” immersed in social roles (“women” often appearing alongside “children”). Every ambitious girl begins her life by recognizing the battlefields and coming up with a strategy to demand to be treated as a full-fledged human being. Every person born a woman must work incredibly hard to get away from predetermined roles.
Boys get this from the beginning, they don’t have to make any special effort. They get a surfboard and good wind. The girl begins by learning how to swim in strange and unfamiliar water. And, unfortunately, literature that is focused on men, their experiences, their lives in the world, their egos, their penises, doesn’t help her. For Jules Verne—my favorite writer in childhood—only men are real characters.
As I was writing The Books of Jacob, I very consciously set myself the task of revindication—restoring the proportions, establishing a certain form of just symmetry, giving back to female historical figures their erased presences. Recreating their existences down to the last details, as if it were detective work. And freeing them from the curse of simplified labels like “mother,” “lover,” “housekeeper,” etc. This, for instance, is how I worked on Gitla.
RSIn your Nobel lecture, you observe that the internet has fundamentally changed our approach to literature, noting that, “Fiction has lost the readers’ trust since lying has become a dangerous weapon of mass destruction, even if it is still a primitive tool.” How can the novel today respond to this breach of trust and navigate new anxieties concerning fact versus fiction?
We don’t read a novel for “truth.”
OTYes, I have observed a kind of flight from fiction, as if fiction were somehow frivolous, as if it were fairytales to be told to children. Men in particular despise fiction and often brag that they read only biographies. Often when men ask me to inscribe my books, they explain it’s for their wives. “Serious people” definitively prefer autobiographies or reportage in Poland, unaware that fiction is secretly governing these genres as well. Judgments about the superiority of nonfiction over fiction are generally pronounced by those who are not the closest readers and who haven’t fully realized the true power of fiction, naively conflating it with untruth, with fabrication. But the Truth of a good novel is of a completely different order. It belongs to that part of our experience that is closer to the reality of a myth or to some other “eternal story” (which is what I call narratives that don’t really have an author but are collectively reproduced in cultures and are ceaselessly adapting to new realities, somehow remaining immortal). Participation in a novel, in literature, has nothing to do with the work of a purely rational mind (insofar as this exists); there is no banal distinction between truth and untruth there. Is Anna Karenina real? What about Goethe’s Werther, on whose account hundreds of young people committed suicide?
I believe in a definition of truth that says that what is real is what exercises an influence. In this sense Gulliver’s adventures in strange lands are real, since for three centuries they have provoked ideas, inspired, and impacted people’s lives, becoming paintings and films. Sometimes this reality of literature frightens me: We remember Anna Karenina or Gulliver better than Jan Kowalski and Maria Nowak (or, in the English-speaking world, John and Jane Doe) of whom there is essentially nothing left. At most, some barely legible entry in the parish records.
In any case, we don’t read a novel for “truth.” In our quest for truth it is better to head for some reliable website, buy a trustworthy newspaper, read a scholarly article, attend a lecture at a university. The task of the novel is to convey human experience on many levels: sensual, metaphorical, psychological, historical, symbolic . . . The novel is an extremely sophisticated communication tool and another historical manifestation of the same—the human need to recount and understand the world. I don’t insist that the novel will always take the same form. The kind of novel we know—printed with the author’s name on the cover—is a product of our times and our Gutenberg technique. But stories told with tenderness will find some way of remaining.
*Correction, March 23, 2022: A previous version of this piece incorrectly stated that the page numbers in The Books of Jacob were ordered from 965 to 1 as a nod to the Hebrew calendar's system of time. They are a nod to the orientation of Hebrew books.
Rhian Sasseen lives in New York. She has written for The Believer, The Paris Review, the Poetry Foundation, and more.
Jennifer Croft is the author of Homesick and Serpientes y escaleras and the winner of the International Booker Prize for her translation of Nobel Laureate Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights.
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