This happened a long time ago in the dark high school times when my frequent truancy stopped being a secret to my parents. Some grades had to be improved and the most demanding Polish teacher at school was impressed by my extensive knowledge. Having all the makings of a typical bookworm, I decided to choose the so-called “high” literature in the form of almost a thousand pages long- Ulisses by James Joyce. The task turned out to be a tough nut to crack, as the number of threads, descriptions or cultural references caused huge chaos in my adolescent mind.
However, years later, I faced that book again, understanding a lot more of its essence. This may sound like a cliché, but you just have to flower into some kind of literature, especially the one that requires possessing certain knowledge and sensitivity of its reader.
That is also the case with our Nobel prize winner, Olga Tokarczuk, whose oeuvre I came across some time ago.
When dealing with her literature, one has to bear in mind that this is not bedtime reading. That is why those who seek only content that does not require any deeper reflection may feel disappointed. However, others who would like to confront this dragon will be taken on a journey through worlds that often oscillate between reality and sleep, where nothing is as it might seem, into a space where the author’s fascination with mythology, magic, or mysticism (inspired by William Blake, whom the artist greatly appreciates) is revealed.
Tokarczuk practices a kind of hybrid of genres, often playing with a form that sometimes seems chaotic, and unrelated. This can be seen in the famous Flights which consists of many loosely connected stories, anecdotes, or statistics, written in the style that reminded me a bit of Kafka or Joyce. The main theme here is a constant journey (“…to stay put in a place is to be controlled.”) not only from one place to another but also to the depths of one’s being. There is a lot to digest here, and the book requires the right time and circumstances to be fully appreciated (at least that was in my case).
The novels Drive your Plow over the Bones of the Dead and Playing on Many Drums (which is more of a collection of novellas) are closer to my soul. The first one caught my attention with the author’s courage in raising topics perceived as some kind of taboo in our country but most of all with the character of Janina Duszejko – an eccentric soul and a fighter for the rights of our fellow animals.
As far as the second title is concerned, one of my favorites is The Ugliest Woman in the World inspired by the life of the nineteenth-century Mexican woman, Julia Pastrana, who was “honored |” with this unfortunate title. This story touched me deeply, especially as a woman, since various canons of beauty are constantly being imposed on our gender, making us chase all our lives for the unattainable ideal instead of accepting our uniqueness.
Diversity of topics, stylistic means, playing with form. There is still much to be written about our Nobel Prize winner’s work. The fact is that her prose cannot be passed by indifferently, because it forces us to think and imprints its stigma in our souls.