Poland’s Olga Tokarczuk: perpetual motion literature

Poland's Olga Tokarczuk: perpetual motion literature

Warsaw (AFP) – Olga Tokarczuk, considered the most talented Polish novelist of her generation, has a string of bestsellers to her name and a style that blends the real with the mystical.

A vegetarian and environmentalist with long, dark dreadlocks, the 57-year-old writer is also a political activist who does not shy away from criticising Poland’s right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) government.

She received death threats in 2015 after telling state media that an open and tolerant Poland was a myth. Her publishers assigned her a security detail for a week.

Her books portray a polychromatic world perpetually in motion, with characters’ traits intermingled and language that is both precise and poetic.

“I don’t have a clear biography of my own that I could recount in an interesting way. I’m made up of the characters that I pulled out of my head, that I invented,” Tokarczuk said in an interview with The Polish Book Institute.

“I’m made up of all of them. I have a huge, multi-frame biography.”

Tokarczuk has written more than a dozen books and won numerous honours, including Britain’s Man Booker International Prize last year and Poland’s most prestigious Nike Literary Award — twice.

Her books have been turned into plays and films and translated into more than 25 languages, including Catalan, Hindi and Japanese.

– ‘Mystic’ –

Born on January 29, 1962, in the western town of Sulechow, Tokarczuk studied psychology at the University of Warsaw.

She worked as a therapist for a few years in the western city of Walbrzych and published a collection of poems before taking a stab at prose.

Following the success of her early books, she turned to writing full time and settled in the Sudety mountains near the Czech border.

The mother of one is an animal lover with a keen interest in astrology and psychoanalyst Carl Jung. 

“She’s a mystic in constant search of the truth, a truth that can only be perceived on the move, by transcending borders,” said Kinga Dunin, a friend and fellow writer.

“All set forms, institutions and language are death,” Dunin told AFP.

– Spanning borders – 

Tokarczuk’s first novel, “The Journey of the People of the Book,” released in 1993, chronicles a failed expedition to find a mysterious book.

She won the Booker International Prize along with her translator Jennifer Croft for her 2007 novel “Flights”, whose English version came out in 2017.

The book was praised for its “series of startling juxtapositions (as Tokarczuk) flies us through a galaxy of departures and arrivals, stories and digressions, all the while exploring matters close to the contemporary and human predicament”.

Her 900-page “The Books of Jacob” spans seven countries, three religions and five languages, tracing the little-known history of Frankism, a Jewish messianic sect that sprang up in Poland in the 18th century. 

Released in 2014, its pages are numbered in reverse in the style of Hebrew books. 

It became both an award-winning bestseller and the target of harsh criticism from nationalist circles in Poland.

Tokarczuk also co-wrote the screenplay for the Polish crime film “Spoor”, which won the Alfred Bauer Prize for a work of particular innovation at the Berlin film festival in 2017.

“Spoor” was also selected as Poland’s entry for the best foreign language film at the 2018 Oscars.

When not travelling, Tokarczuk divides her time between an apartment in Poland’s western city of Wroclaw and her mountain home. 

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