Olga Tokarczuk’s Radical Tenderness

Reading the Nobel winner's oeuvre

Marek Makowski
Men in an airport lounge
Franz Jachim / Creative Commons

In October 2019, when the Swedish Academy’s press secretary announced Olga Tokarczuk as the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, I was lying in bed with my eyes closed, holding a phone that was livestreaming the ceremony. For years I had woken at 6 a.m. on the day the laureate would be named, hoping to discover a great author in a language I did not know or possibly one who wrote in my ancestors’ tongue. The secretary spoke in Swedish, so I did not understand anything until he said “Olga Tokarczuk”: yes, that was Polish, a language my parents and my grandparents and my great-grandparents and I understood. I spent the morning on the phone, writing and speaking to my family about the news, and thinking about how writing allows one to communicate with others different from oneself, miles away, unlocking however briefly the prison of one’s solitude.

On December 7, 2019, Tokarczuk accepted her prize and delivered her Nobel lecture. (While she is officially 2018’s laureate, the prize was not awarded until December 2019 because of a sexual misconduct scandal implicating an Academy member’s husband.) That week, the U.S. House of Representatives approved articles of impeachment against President Donald J. Trump; a gunman shot and killed seven people at a hospital in Czechia; seventy Nigerian troops were ambushed and killed at a military camp; the British voted for a leader to complete Brexit; and French workers continued to strike in yellow vests.

Amidst this noise, Tokarczuk argued in her lecture that the problem of a world in pieces is a problem of storytelling, of our inability to arrange information and events. “The world is dying,” she said (in Jennifer Croft and Antonia Lloyd-Jones’s translation), “and we are failing to notice. We fail to see that the world is becoming a collection of things and incidents … The world has become a broken heap of people, things, and events.”

Although it was only a little more than a year ago, the image of Tokarczuk speaking at a marble lectern, writers and intellectuals attentively listening, now feels as if it is from another time. Today, a year into the coronavirus pandemic, questions about the ethics of fiction might seem frivolous. But in her speech, Tokarczuk took a view that art and questions about art are essential, because the imagination shapes everything we do, and because how we tell stories affects the way we regard each other, animals, the planet, and crisis itself.

In the lecture, Tokarczuk argued that we have fragmented the world with categories, divisions, and borders. But the world is more than that, she said, and we ought to have been listening to a collective whisper from objects, animals, “rivers, forests and roads … that mapped our space and built a sense of belonging.” We see the world this way as children, she explained, then “at some point in our lives we start to see the world in pieces, everything separately.” Readers often ask her a question that, in her view, “bodes the end of literature”: “Is this thing you wrote really true?” In her bracing formulation, this is the wrong question to ask, since we construct reality, making events into experience at every moment. From this perspective, “fiction is always a kind of truth.”

What’s more, the first-person narratives that dominate contemporary writing, she contended, only exacerbate division. Although they allow writers to erase “the borders between the narrator’s self and the reader’s self,” they result in “a choir made up of soloists only, voices competing for attention, all traveling similar routes, drowning one another out.” In response, she did not turn back to some Realist ideal of an objective narrator; rather, she conjured an alternative, the “mysterious, tender narrator … who manages to encompass the perspective of each of the characters” and can “step beyond the horizon of each of them” to present a wider view. This narrator understands that “all things that exist are mutually connected into a single whole, even if the connections between them are not yet known to us.” She hopes that tenderness will allow us to see the world as a whole again, including the animals, ecosystems, and people we continue to ignore and destroy. By placing the tender narrator “ex-centrically, away from the center,” a writer can help us glimpse reality anew.

At the start of the pandemic
, locked in my solitary quarters, I read all of Tokarczuk’s works.

Tokarczuk writes what she calls “constellation novels”: works that transcend style, narrative, perspective, place, and time, with no obvious relationship amongst the parts beyond broader themes. The best-known in English is Flights, her 2007 novel, translated into English by Jennifer Croft and published in 2018, which anticipated the political, intellectual, and personal significance of border-crossing and migration at the end of the 2010s. Like her other novels, it relies on the psychological effect known as “pareidolia”: the tendency to find images in random patterns, the way we find constellations in the stars.

Tokarczuk constructs Flights as a compendium in order to represent how we experience the world today—in pieces, without set chronologies—and to allow the reader to see different shapes in the form. Flights disrupts generic divisions by presenting contemporary stories alongside short essays, letters, travelers’ reports, academic lectures, antique maps, and more. It is composed of 116 narrative passages, short and long, and not obviously interrelated: the narrator’s peregrinations through airports and planes; the moment the Achilles tendon was identified and named; a fictionalized history of how Chopin’s sister smuggled his heart back to Warsaw in a jar. The narrator passes us through many places, people, and times, with no explicit transitions, with no summary or grand arc or conclusion. One would wonder: if tenderness means the portrayal of interconnectedness, where is the tenderness in this?

Tokarczuk answers this question in one of the novel’s last sections, “Final Timetable.” The narrator joins other travelers at an exhibit to view preserved bodies and pieces of bodies through Plexiglass boxes. She notes that “one such person-body lay before us now, cut up into slices. And this gave us access to altogether unexpected points of view.” These fragments let us see both the part and the whole, and account for the hyphen in “person-body”—the hyphen that holds together a knee and a corpus, that conjoins a person’s thoughts, hopes, dreams, appearances, and selves.

The fragments of Flights are narrated by a woman who underscores her ability to understand others, to see them. This quality is what connects everything she sees as she moves from place to place. In the beginning she says she is “a private investigator of signs and coincidences” attempting to be “the perfect observer.” But this “I” is not interested in herself; she acts in belief that “that which is static will degenerate and decay, turn to ash, while that which is in motion is able to last for all eternity.” In the book’s terms, mobility means eternity. Waiting at the airport, she says, “I never have to be at any particular place at any particular time. Let time watch me, not me it.” The eternal contains all people and all eras; the narrator’s ability to represent a range of them constitutes her tenderness.

Each of Tokarczuk’s narrators exhibits this capacity in their own way, but something about the one in Flights moved me last spring. She could become other people while she firmly remained herself—a fluidity I longed for as millions suffered from the virus and I sat safely in my room. Throughout the novel we find the narrator and the narrated morphing together; the narrator collates the sections of Flights, she becomes those she listens to and reads. One “I” becomes another as she shares Josefine Soliman’s letters to the Emperor of Austria or Willem Van Horssen’s first-person history of Filip Verheyen. Elsewhere, the narrator speaks from other characters’ perspectives, detailing the most trivial of their observations, the most private of their feelings. At one point, she says that becoming an old woman allows her to “move around like a ghost, look over people’s shoulders, listen in on their arguments and watch them sleep … or talking to themselves, unaware of my presence, moving just their lips, forming words that I will soon pronounce for them.”

The narrator also fills her book with examples of encyclopedic projects, implying that hers might represent one, too. She describes the functions of Wikipedia and travel guides, and she even imagines an anti-Wikipedia that would enumerate “everything we don’t know.” One traveler she meets says she will compile “an exhaustive volume that leaves out no crime, from the dawn of the world to our time. It will be humanity’s confessions.” In another section, the narrator finds an article titled “How to Build an Ocean: Instructions.” The random facts printed on the wrappers of her sanitary pads, the narrator realizes, represent “yet another part of the project of the great encyclopedia now coming into being, the encyclopedia that would encompass all things.” Wikipedia, travel guides, a book of crimes, instructions for creating an ocean, sanitary pads, anatomy— Flights brings together all of these various subjects so convincingly that one does not question the act of collection.

Flights lands—or takes off—with a section called “Boarding.” The narrator observes a stranger at the terminal who “looks like a guy who discovered not so long ago that he’s not really so different from everybody else—thus attaining, in other words, his own enlightenment.” The man pulls out a notebook, and suddenly we escape even the narrator’s perspective, as she begins to write down that the man is copying down what she is writing—a mirroring that shows both the difference and the similarity of each traveler-writer: “We will simply write each other down, which is the safest form of communication and of transit: we will reciprocally transform each other into letters and initials, immortalize each other, plastinate each other, submerge each other in formaldehyde phrases and pages.”

The first time I read this novel I was traveling through Europe. The world was not locked down then, and I experienced Flights, like so many of its readers did, as a great, curious adventure, true to life while advancing the novel’s form. Last spring it moved me in a different way. The language of safely preserving one another at a distance—this was a beautiful promise, a kind of personal vaccine against the fear of destruction and death.

The Nobel lecture and each of Tokarczuk’s novels offer us a new way to understand literature and our world: they share an openness, an ability to connect and to revive grand narratives. Their perspectives could rescue us from a literature of genres and solitary “I”s, from a world of indistinct information, tribal politics, hyperspecialized workers, and environmental catastrophe. Tenderness holds these perspectives together, here and in all of her works, and that is why I turned to Flights at the start of the pandemic, and why I will always return to her books in crisis. Between the future and the past we find the present. Tokarczuk is the author of the present, the author of now. Press your fingers to her pages; press your face right up to the ink. You will feel the heartbeat of her prose, the steady suspiration of our times.

Marek Makowski is a writer living in Chicago. He teaches writing (currently remotely) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His Instagram is @realmarekm.
Originally published:
February 16, 2021


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