The Warsaw Book Fair takes place each May in the National Stadium, a basketlike structure flecked with the red and white of the Polish flag. On a bright Saturday morning, hundreds of orange balloons given out by an audiobook company bobbed from children’s hands, and crowds of readers browsed the booths of publishers from across Europe. The National Fryderyk Chopin Institute had a grand piano at its booth, and a young woman played “Bohemian Rhapsody.” At a pop-up bookstore, a clerk with long brown hair and hipster glasses obligingly showed a customer a copy of “Forever Butt,” a queer-magazine anthology (“pocket-sized, pink and super gay”). A long line of people snaked out of the booth of the venerable publishing house Wydawnictwo Literackie and around several of the other displays. They were waiting for a signing by Olga Tokarczuk, who in recent years has established herself as Poland’s preëminent novelist and is frequently mentioned as a contender for the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Tokarczuk herself was outside: crowds make her anxious, and she was steeling herself. After staying out late the night before, she had had trouble sleeping. Tokarczuk, who is fifty-seven, is petite and striking, with the focussed energy of a yoga teacher. She favors artfully draped clothing and layered bracelets. Her long brown hair was twisted into dreadlocks, threaded with blue beads and piled on top of her head. Her mouth is often pursed in a wry smile.
I stood with her as she smoked a chopstick-thin Vogue cigarette under the stadium’s basketwork. The building opened in 2012, and has lately become the focal point of an annual March of Independence, in November, at which members of far-right and nationalist groups have carried banners with slogans such as “Poland for the Poles” and “Stop Islamization.” It replaced a Communist-era stadium, which had become thoroughly dilapidated by the mid-nineties, when I spent most of a year in the country, learning Polish before going to graduate school. As Poland shifted to a capitalist economy, the site turned into an open-air market for counterfeit and secondhand goods, infamous for its garbage and crime. I was warned never to set foot there.
Tokarczuk finished her cigarette. Small balls of gray catkin fluff blew on the wind, seedpods from poplars, which bloom all over Warsaw in the spring. She brushed them off her smocklike black dress and headed inside.
A buzz travelled down the signing line as a publicist whisked Tokarczuk past into a greenroom. Her dreadlocks make her instantly recognizable. She adopted them on a whim more than a decade ago, when an airport strike left her with some time to kill in Bangkok. Since then, she has heard that a kind of dreadlock was common among tribes living in Poland during pre-Christian times. “There’s an expression in Latin for this: plica polonica,” she told me later. “It’s a pejorative description, suggesting a lack of hygiene.” She laughed.
Excavating something forgotten from Polish history and reframing it in a contemporary context has become Tokarczuk’s signature. She is best known internationally for “Flights,” her sixth novel, which was published in the United States last year, more than a decade after it appeared in Polish, and won the 2018 Man Booker International Prize. Tokarczuk calls the book—a genre-crossing agglomeration of fiction, history, memoir, and essay—a “constellation novel.” Its over-all preoccupation is with the idea of journeying, but its sections are often linked by just a word or an image, allowing readers to discover their own connections. “When I first submitted it to my publishing house, they called me back and asked if perhaps I mixed up the files in my computer, because this is not a novel,” she said.
A form based on fragments is particularly suitable for a novel by an author from Poland, where national borders have changed over and over through the centuries, and where multiple ethnic groups—Poles, Ukrainians, Lithuanians, Germans, Ruthenians, Jews—have lived side by side in a cacophony of languages and experience. Central European literature generally, Tokarczuk believes, “questions reality more. It’s more distrustful of stable, permanent things.” In “Flights,” a character says, “Constellation, not sequencing, carries the truth.”
In Poland, a narrative of history that embraces fragmentation, diversity, and intermingling is unavoidably political, disrupting a long-standing mythology of the country as a homogeneous Catholic nation. This national mythology has been ascendant in recent years, especially since 2015, when the socially conservative party Law and Justice came to power, on an anti-immigration “national unity” platform. Since then, the government has refused to accept refugees from the Middle East and North Africa, resisted instituting equal rights for same-sex couples, and passed a law forbidding discussion of Polish collaboration with the Nazis during the Second World War.
In a recent Op-Ed that appeared in the Times, Tokarczuk deplored her country’s political climate: “State television, from which a significant number of Poles get their news, consistently smears, in aggressive and defamatory language, the political opposition and anyone who thinks differently from the ruling party.” Her work often addresses issues on which she has strong views. A longtime vegetarian who says that she loses sleep over the suffering of animals in slaughterhouses and on factory farms, she published, in 2009, an unconventional murder mystery with an environmentalist and animal-rights slant. The book, “Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead,” comes out here in August from Riverhead, in a translation by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, the translator of two previous novels by Tokarczuk.
Poland, not unlike the United States, is politically split down the middle. Law and Justice’s supporters are balanced by progressives—often younger, city-dwelling, and living in the western half of the country—who seek tolerance, multiculturalism, and a truthful reckoning with Poland’s past. These are Tokarczuk’s readers. “Even my friends who don’t read a lot, who don’t follow the latest young poets or writers, they’re reading Olga Tokarczuk,” Zofia Król, the editor of the online literary magazine Dwutygodnik, told me.
When Tokarczuk emerged to greet her readers, all traces of anxiety were gone from her face, and she chatted animatedly and posed for selfies at the signing table. One fan had brought her a book of drawings of “phantom architecture”—designs that were never built—hoping that it might be a source of inspiration. A librarian from Pruszków, just outside Warsaw, presented her with a recently published Polish translation of a memory book chronicling the life of the town’s Jewish community, which was eradicated in 1941, during the Nazi occupation.
“Polly needs some time alone.”Cartoon by Sam Gross
The signing lasted nearly two hours. Stepping away from the table afterward, Tokarczuk groaned and pretended to collapse. But her eyes were alert. “To know that people are waiting for the next book—it gives me energy,” she said.
Tokarczuk is based in Wrocław, in the southwest of Poland. She was in Warsaw not only for the book fair but also for a literary festival, called Apostrof, which took place at the Universal Theatre, a headquarters of sorts for intellectuals and artists. This year Tokarczuk was a guest curator, organizing a weeklong series of symposiums featuring leading Polish writers and intellectuals. She attended nearly every panel, jotting things down in a small black notebook and occasionally calling out suggestions if the speakers seemed at a loss for ideas. The theme she had chosen was “This Is Not the Only Possible World.” One discussion focussed on what a post-religious Poland might look like. Another was about climate change and other ecological issues. In lieu of the traditional bouquet of cut flowers, each panelist was given a beech sapling as a token of appreciation.
One night, a group of educators debated the future of the Polish school system. Piotr Laskowski, a teacher in his early forties, professed disgust at the way business had co-opted words like “creativity” and “innovation.” Until recently, he’d been the head of a high school at which most decisions are made jointly by a vote of students and faculty. Schools, he said, should aim to free students from thinking about the labor market and prepare them instead to shape the world. Wearing a navy hoodie, he rocked back and forth with barely contained energy as he spoke. Tokarczuk beamed up at him from her customary seat in the middle of the front row.
After the event, at a gathering in the theatre’s garden, Tokarczuk introduced Laskowski to me as the man who ran “the most anarchist school in the system.”
“It’s not that anarchist, I’m afraid,” he said.
Tokarczuk took a sip of a diet Fritz-Kola, a German brand with an intense caffeine kick. “How free are you to determine what you tell your pupils?” she asked.
Law and Justice has introduced a state-mandated curriculum: history classes are limited to Polish history, narrated from a distinctly nationalist perspective; literature classes emphasize classics of Polish literature, such as the historical novels of Henryk Sienkiewicz, rather than its great nonconformists, such as Witold Gombrowicz and Bruno Schulz.
Laskowski shrugged. A teacher who diverges from the official line “won’t get arrested,” he said, just “intimidated,” perhaps with a threat of forced retirement. Although this probably wouldn’t happen in Warsaw, he added, “if you are a teacher in a very small town or village, with a very conservative population, with a priest who teaches religion in the school, then your position changes radically.” He chuckled grimly.
Among left-leaning people I spoke to, such talk was common: you could get away with whatever you were doing, until one day you couldn’t. Most cultural institutions depend on public money, which makes them vulnerable to political pressure. Last December, after Król, the Dwutygodnik editor, resisted attempts to censor the magazine, the government pulled its funding; it ceased publication for several months, until Król secured backing from Warsaw’s relatively liberal city government.
In the media, finding a way to work without state support is becoming an attractive option. When a crowdfunded documentary about child molestation by Catholic priests was released on YouTube recently, it was viewed more than twenty million times—equivalent to more than half of Poland’s population—in a few days. “I can’t listen to official radio,” Monika Platek, a professor of law and criminology at the University of Warsaw, told me, as she hunted on her phone for an episode of WNYC’s “Radiolab” that she wanted to share with Tokarczuk. Platek was running for a seat in the European Parliamentary Elections, as a candidate for Wiosna, a new progressive party. The elections were a day and a half away.
At the end of the evening, the Polish writer Andrzej Stasiuk, backed by a Ukrainian rock band called Haydamaky, performed musical settings of poems by Adam Mickiewicz. Born in 1798, just after Poland was divided in three by Prussia and the Russian and Austrian Empires, Mickiewicz was involved in Poland’s unsuccessful struggle for independence and spent most of his life in exile. His work is fervently patriotic—he is regarded as Poland’s national poet—but, as Stasiuk’s adaptations emphasized, the land Mickiewicz extolled included large parts of Ukraine, Lithuania, and Belarus. Stasiuk, a tall, slender man in his late fifties, began by reciting in Polish the opening lines of “The Akkerman Steppes,” a romantic sonnet that describes the Crimean landscape. As horns riffing on a folk tune came in behind him and the drums picked up, Stasiuk switched languages, half shouting, half rapping the same verses in Ukrainian. Tokarczuk swayed to the music. “I get goosebumps when I hear this,” she said, rubbing her arms. “Can you see the logo on his shirt?”
We were some distance from the stage and the logo was hard to make out. It seemed to involve the eagle from Poland’s coat of arms, but there was also something else. I moved forward through the crowd until I was standing directly below Stasiuk. The design looked like a stylized bird, with two symmetrical wings on either side of something shaped like a wooden spoon. I took a picture and made my way back to Tokarczuk.
“Ah,” she said, zooming in. “That’s the Ukrainian Tryzub crest.” She interlaced her fingers, shaking her hands for emphasis. “The two cultures—they’re like this. They can’t be separated.”
The relationship between Poles and Ukrainians forms the core of the novel that Tokarczuk is currently working on, which will draw on her family history. Her ancestors on her father’s side included Poles, Ukrainians, and Ruthenians, and came from a village in the province of Galicia. “Some of them were much more aware of their national identity, and for some of them it was not so important,” she told me over tea the next afternoon, as we sat in the lobby of a new boutique hotel in central Warsaw. (Tokarczuk speaks English extremely well, but her Polish has an uncommon elegance and clarity; our conversations took place in both languages.)
During the Second World War, there was a massacre of Poles in the village, part of a wave of killings by Ukrainian nationalists that claimed tens of thousands of lives in the region. Tokarczuk’s grandfather, who was Polish but had married a Ukrainian woman, survived. After the war, Galicia was divvied up between the Soviet Union and Poland, and the village became part of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. The family, along with nearly a million other inhabitants of the area, immigrated to Lower Silesia, a region of southwestern Poland bordering what is now Germany and the Czech Republic. Poles were encouraged to settle there, in part to replace ethnic Germans, who had fled to Germany as the Red Army advanced or who were expelled by Poland once the war was over. “You cannot speak about this area without Ukrainians, because three million Polish people living there still have roots in Ukraine,” Tokarczuk said. “This distinction—who is Polish and who is Ukrainian—is for me very artificial.”
Tokarczuk was born in 1962, the first of two daughters, in a village just north of Lower Silesia. A small German minority had remained there: some claimed they were Polish in order to stay, while others married Poles. As a child, Tokarczuk had a German nanny. Her parents taught at a folk high school, part of a movement founded to bring education to the peasant classes, and the family lived on the school grounds, a period Tokarczuk remembers happily. Her father was the school librarian, and she spent most of her time there with him, reading whatever she could get her hands on—poetry, Apuleius, Jules Verne, the encyclopedia.
In her teens, Tokarczuk became aware that much of the world was closed to her. “Everything that was interesting was outside of Poland,” she said. “Great music, art, film, hippies, Mick Jagger. It was impossible even to dream of escape. I was convinced as a teen-ager that I would have to spend the rest of my life in this trap.”
In the fall of 1980, she went to the University of Warsaw, to study psychology. The campus had been a German barracks during the war, her dormitory was near the ruins of the Jewish ghetto, and there were still gaps along the streets from the Nazis’ systematic destruction of the city, in 1944. In her second year, in response to the spread of demonstrations across the country, the government declared martial law. Even now, in the comfort of the hotel lobby, Tokarczuk suppressed a shudder at the memory. “For a young girl from the provinces, it was very harsh,” she said. “There was nothing to buy in the shops, only vinegar and mustard on the shelves. And despair in the air. People really were very pessimistic. I didn’t believe that the Soviet Union would ever break down.”
After graduating, in 1985, Tokarczuk married a fellow psychology student, and they moved to a town not far from Wrocław. Tokarczuk specialized in clinical psychology, including work with drug addicts and alcoholics. After a few years, she was burned out. “I’m too neurotic to be a therapist,” she says.
She managed to get a passport to travel to London for a few months, where she studied English, worked odd jobs—assembling antennas in a factory, cleaning rooms in a posh hotel—and spent time in bookstores, reading feminist theory, which she hadn’t encountered in Poland. An early story, “The Hotel Capital,” is written from the perspective of a chambermaid who creates stories about the people whose rooms she cleans, based on their personal effects. “Every time I’m in a hotel,” Tokarczuk told me, looking self-consciously around the lobby, “I remember maids are people like me, that they can also write about me and about my mess in the hotel room.”
After Tokarczuk returned to Poland, she and her husband had a son, and she began to write in earnest. She credits her training in psychology with giving her the awareness that multiple realities can coexist. One of her first clinical experiences involved two brothers who had completely different emotional narratives about their family dynamic. “That was my first step to writing,” she later recalled. “To write is to look for very particular, specific points of view on reality.”
Tokarczuk’s first novel, published in 1993, was a philosophical parable set in seventeenth-century France; the next told the story of a psychic in Wrocław in the nineteen-twenties. Her first major success came with her third, “Primeval and Other Times” (1996), in which she drew on stories that her maternal grandmother told her as a child. With a touch of magic realism—four guardian angels watch over the proceedings—the novel chronicles the lives of two families in a fictional Polish village through the twentieth century. Much of it revolves around interactions between Poles and Jews. Poles visit Jewish doctors and shop in Jewish stores, but the passionate love of a Polish woman and a Jewish man is thwarted. For its combination of mythical elements and a long view of history, the novel was hailed as an innovation.
Around the same time, Tokarczuk fell in love with the Kłodzko Valley, a picturesque corner of Lower Silesia, by the Czech border. She and her husband bought a simple wood-frame house and set about fixing it up. Tokarczuk became fascinated by the history and culture of the region. Passing a church shortly after the move, she noticed a statue of a saint, St. Wilgefortis, an experience that formed the backbone of her next novel, “House of Day, House of Night,” which was published in 1998. She writes of coming across a booklet in the church’s souvenir shop which contained a medieval life of the saint, written by someone identified only as “Paschalis, monk.” According to legend, Wilgefortis wanted to become a nun, but her father kidnapped her from a convent and tried to force her to marry. She prayed to Jesus to make her repellent to the would-be groom and was rewarded with masculine features and a beard that resembled Christ’s—at the sight of which her father had her put to death.
“Would Juror No. 6 kindly please stop sighing and saying, ‘Oh, boy, here we go again,’ every time a new witness takes the stand?”Cartoon by Zachary Kanin
“Who was the person who wrote the life of the saint, and how did he know it all?” a character asks. As it turns out, Paschalis—a fictional figure—is uniquely suited to write the hagiography of this masculine girl: from boyhood on, he has been tormented by the desire to become a woman. Like the region in which the story takes place, with its ever-shifting national borders, both characters inhabit a liminal state, which seems to enhance their capacity for empathy.
In its juxtaposition of memoir, fiction, and myth, the novel was Tokarczuk’s first attempt at the constellation form she later used in “Flights.” The latter novel grew out of the fact that, for the first time in her life, Tokarczuk found herself free to travel widely. Her burgeoning international reputation meant invitations to literary festivals around the world, her son was approaching adulthood, and her marriage ended. She became preoccupied with the idea of writing a book about journeys, but conventional travel writing seemed too linear, lacking the “nervous, even aggressive, very active, very urgent” nature of the act of travelling.
“I desperately tried to find a form for such a book, and I couldn’t,” she told me. But, as she began to collate her notes, she realized that they could constitute a novel. To determine the final form, she spread out the book’s fragments—a hundred and six of them—on the floor of her workroom and stood on a table so that she could survey them from above.
One of those fragments concerns Philip Verheyen, the seventeenth-century Flemish anatomist who gave the Achilles tendon its name. When he was a young man, one of his legs had to be amputated. Afterward, Verheyen experienced continual agony in the empty space where his leg had been. What has been removed—be it a limb from the body or a group of people from a nation—still has the power to hurt. “We must research our pain,” he concludes.
The day after Apostrof ended, Tokarczuk was having lunch at an Indian restaurant in Warsaw with her partner of eleven years, Grzegorz Zygadło, an affable man in his late forties with worried eyes and a scruff of dark hair. The results of the European Parliament elections had come in, and they were dispiriting. Law and Justice had won its largest-ever share of the vote, more than forty-five per cent, a lead of nearly seven points over its centrist rival, the European Coalition. Wiosna had come in at six per cent, and would be sending three representatives to Brussels. Monika Platek, the “Radiolab” fan from Apostrof, would not be one of them.
Zygadło used to work as a translator from German. Now his job, as he describes it, is “taking care of Olga,” serving as chauffeur, errand runner, research assistant, and so on. She refers to him as her “manager”; he calls her writing “the family business.” In addition to supplying her with whatever she might immediately require—espresso, a copy of a book, tech support—he sometimes stepped in, as she and I talked, to elaborate on a point she had made or to caution her, sotto voce, not to be indiscreet.
Later in the afternoon, Zygadło drove us to Wrocław, three hours away. Their car, a Volvo station wagon, was stuffed to the roof with suitcases, garment bags, and Tokarczuk’s beech tree from the Apostrof festival. As we set off, Tokarczuk tied her dreadlocks into a knot, and reached for a bag of kale-flavored rice crackers. Zygadło negotiated the traffic with difficulty, at one point stopping smack in the middle of one of Warsaw’s (admittedly confusing) roundabouts.
During the years that she spent researching and writing her most recent novel, “The Books of Jacob” (2014), the two of them drove around much of Europe like this—Ukraine, Bulgaria, Romania, the Czech Republic, Germany, Turkey—following the trail of its protagonist, Jacob Frank. (It is expected to appear in English next year, translated by Jennifer Croft, who also translated “Flights.”) Frank was an eighteenth-century Polish Jew who proclaimed himself as the Messiah. In the seventeen-fifties, he accumulated thousands of followers among the Sabbateans, the messianic Jewish sect to which he belonged. He incorporated Christian teachings into Sabbatean Judaism and conducted mass baptisms. In addition to doing historical research into the details of the era, Tokarczuk wanted to experience the locations herself, she said: “I am a writer, not a historian, so I have to touch everything myself—to smell, to touch, to see.” She observed plants, leaves, the color of the soil, the flow of the Dniester River. In Lviv, she sat in the cathedral to imagine how it had been when Frank’s followers were baptized there en masse.
For the better part of a decade, she immersed herself in every possible subject related to Frank: Poland in the eighteenth century, religion, mysticism, the Jewish enlightenment in Central Europe. It was important to her to get even the smallest details right. In one scene, she depicted women sitting and sewing, with light reflecting off their metal needles. Reading it over, she sensed that something was wrong, and then realized that it was too early for metal needles in that part of Europe; people sewed with wooden ones. Later, when the book was nearly finished, consultants hired by her publisher pointed out that potatoes were not commonly eaten in Central Europe in that period; rice, imported from Turkey, was the staple.
The result is Tokarczuk’s most ambitious work yet. More than nine hundred pages long, the novel interweaves the perspectives of dozens of people connected to Frank, including Benedykt Chmielowski, a priest who wrote the first Polish-language encyclopedia; Elisha Schorr, a rabbi who was entranced by Frank’s charisma; Moliwda, a Polish nobleman who was Frank’s translator, confidant, and eventual betrayer; and a dying Jewish grandmother who swallows a kabbalistic amulet and achieves immortality.
The book was an instant best-seller and won the country’s most prestigious literary prize, the Nike Award. Its success underscored something that was obvious during my visit: Poland’s Jewish heritage is discussed much more openly today than it was when I was there in the nineties. At Apostrof, one panelist wore a T-shirt with Yiddish lettering. On the site of the Warsaw Ghetto, there now stands a popular new museum, the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews. (“Polin” is the Yiddish name for Poland.) “There’s no Polish culture without Jewish culture,” Tokarczuk said to me at one point. Still, Poland’s embrace of this heritage is far from unequivocal. When Tokarczuk first read about Frank, she realized that many people had incentives to forget his story: Polish Catholics, embarrassed by Frank’s treatment by the Church (he was imprisoned in a monastery for thirteen years); Orthodox Jews, who regard Frank as a traitor; and even Polish descendants of the Frankists, who might not want to be reminded of their Jewish roots.
Tokarczuk relishes her role as a challenger of orthodoxies, and in an interview after the book won the Nike Award she urged her fellow-citizens to acknowledge the darker elements of the nation’s past. “We have come up with this history of Poland as an open, tolerant country,” she said. “Yet we committed horrendous acts as colonizers, as a national majority that suppressed the minority, as slaveowners, and as the murderers of Jews.” (“Colonizers” was a reference to the resettlement of Poles in Ukraine; “slaveowners,” to serfdom.) Her e-mail in-box and Facebook page were promptly flooded with messages accusing her of treason. “The only justice for these lies is death,” one person wrote. Others called for her to be expelled from Poland. Croft worried for Tokarczuk’s safety and urged her to leave the country for a time. Tokarczuk’s publishers temporarily provided her with bodyguards. But Tokarczuk remained undaunted. Heresy, she says, reveals the borders of convention and also poses the challenge of transcending those borders; it is “an act of the free mind.”
Lately, Tokarczuk has been toying with the idea of living more or less full time in her country house in the Kłodzko Valley, and the place is being renovated and extended. Five years ago, she founded a summer literary festival in the nearby town of Nowa Ruda, featuring writers from across Eastern Europe. She obtained funding from the local government and several private sponsors, including a toilet-paper manufacturer. “I thought of making a medal out of toilet paper for our minister of culture,” Tokarczuk said, grinning.
One day, she and Zygadło drove from their apartment in Wrocław to the country to check on the construction work. Heading south out of the city, we passed a monument commemorating the six-hundredth anniversary of the region’s settlement, and then an Amazon warehouse. An older white man crossed the street holding the hand of a biracial child. “A beautiful young Pole,” Zygadło remarked.
As the highway climbed into the mountains, a heavy rain began to fall. Tokarczuk reacted as if it were a personal affront. “We won’t be able to see the view,” she complained. In good weather, she loves to climb to the top of a hill behind her house, from which you can see the mountains that stretch along the Czech border.
I started to recognize the landscape that Tokarczuk describes in “Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead,” her newly translated animal-rights murder mystery. When she began writing it, she had already conceived the idea for “The Books of Jacob,” but she knew that would take years and she needed to give her publisher a new novel soon. Wanting to write “something light,” she decided to try her hand at a detective novel. “You have a form, you know?” she said. “You just need time to design everything, and then it’s easy. No wonder these mystery writers can produce a new book every single year.” Zygadło, in the driver’s seat, hastily shushed her.
The idea for the mystery first came to Tokarczuk during a winter she spent living alone in the valley after separating from her husband, with only her two dogs as companions. One day, the dogs vanished. “I started to ask people what happened,” she said. “Somebody told me that there was a big hunting expedition in the area, and sometimes these drunken hunters, they used to kill dogs.” She went on, “It was many years ago, but I kept this idea in my mind for a long time. Ideas like this—it’s like they’re in the refrigerator. And then one day they appear on my table.”
The book is anything but a conventional mystery novel. The main character, Janina Duszejko, lives in an unnamed village, where she is waging a one-woman war against the hunters who are her neighbors. A vegetarian and a passionate believer in animal rights, Duszejko is grief-stricken after the unexplained disappearance of her pet dogs, and suffers from an assortment of physical and mental afflictions. As her neighbors begin to turn up dead in unlikely ways—one chokes on a bone while eating a deer he’s killed, another falls into an abandoned well—Duszejko tries to convince the police that the animals themselves are taking revenge on the hunters.
The story is told entirely through Duszejko’s odd, obsessive voice. Isolated and fixated on astrology as a means of understanding the world—“Order does exist, and it is within reach”—she is a naked soul, utterly lacking in mental defenses. Early in the book, thinking about her pain, she wonders, “Perhaps one could get used to it? Learn to live with it, just as people live in the cities of Auschwitz or Hiroshima, without ever thinking about what happened there in the past.” By the end, though, she has realized that such a life is impossible. “Every tiny particle of the world is made of suffering,” she says.
Little by little, the asphalt road turned to dirt. A fox appeared in the brush and, just as quickly, disappeared. Tokarczuk mused about what the area must have looked like after the war, when the Germans fled and the Poles settled. “The Poles used to treat those houses as just a temporary settlement. They didn’t take care of them,” she said. “They were sure that the Third World War was coming and they would have to be ready to leave again.”
The house emerged out of the mist, gutted down to its wood frame. Excavations to the side had created great piles of reddish earth. Two men were operating what looked like a handheld cement mixer, making mortar to lay bricks. The contractor, a compact middle-aged man wearing a black newsboy cap and a quilted black jacket, ushered Tokarczuk into the house. There was no electricity, and she stepped carefully across the unfinished floors, examining tiles for the kitchen and discussing paint colors.
Upstairs, she and Zygadło surveyed the progress on the bedrooms. Tokarczuk had intended the room with the largest window to be a guest room for her sister, to whom she is close, but Zygadło tried to persuade her to keep it as her workroom. At home in Wrocław, she has her own writing space, but here she has grown accustomed to working in the kitchen. “This is how it always goes with women,” she said.
“Don’t feel bad, son. The people are only screaming because they’re such big fans.”Cartoon by Elisabeth McNair
“Not in my time,” Zygadło retorted, shaking his head.
Tokarczuk peered out the window. “Are you sure we can’t go to the top of the hill?” she asked. “Maybe in the car?”
He sighed. “We can try.”
Back at the car, Tokarczuk remembered the tree from Apostrof. “Oh, Mr. Roman! Here’s something for you,” she said to a gardener who was standing on the porch.
“What do you want to do with this?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” Tokarczuk said. “It’s a beech tree. It needs room to grow. But I don’t want to block the view. What do you think?”
Together they walked toward a grove of trees in front of the house. Tokarczuk returned in a moment, satisfied. “The forest here was planted by me,” she said. “I don’t have enough imagination, and I didn’t expect that they would be so high. Now they cut off our sun in the morning.”
Beeps of protest issued from the car as Zygadło attempted to maneuver it up the dirt road, now entirely mud.
“Let’s try,” Tokarczuk urged. “Oi!” she exclaimed as the car skidded.
“We can’t go this way!” Zygadło said.
“There’s nothing to see when it’s like this anyway,” Tokarczuk added, sighing. “It’s all fogged over. Such a shame.”
The car beeped again as Zygadło tried to make a tight three-point turn on the narrow road. Across a meadow, there was a wooden hunting pulpit, for hunters to hide in. “Oh dear, that’s a new one,” Tokarczuk said sadly. In the novel, Duszejko remarks, “Isn’t it the height of arrogance, isn’t it a diabolical idea to call a place from which one kills a pulpit?”
“Living here, in the center of Europe, where armies are coming and going and destroying everything, culture becomes a kind of glue,” Tokarczuk said at one point on our drive. “Poles know that without culture they wouldn’t have survived as a nation.” A nation that is held together by the patriotic poetry of Mickiewicz—or by the mythology of a proud people who remain united even when ravaged by conquering armies—is perhaps something like a cracked vase: serviceable, as long as the glue holds, but hardly stable. But, if there can be no Polish culture without Ukrainian culture or Jewish culture, what happens when those minorities are suppressed or exterminated? The glue degrades, the shards fall apart. Artists may make attempts at restitution—by telling stories that show Jews and Poles living in harmony, by singing Mickiewicz’s words in Ukrainian. But they can’t restore the vessel to its original form. Their work reconfigures the pile of shards, making something new out of them. The vessel that Tokarczuk has fashioned out of her nation’s history is fractured and fragmented, and, after what happened in the past century, it has to be. Some have directed their wrath at what it reveals back at her.
The Polish title of “Flights,” “Bieguni” (“Runners”), comes from the name of a Russian Orthodox sect dating to the eighteenth century, whose members believe that staying constantly in motion will allow them to ward off evil. In many ways, Poland is a country of nomads running from the evil of the past, its many ethnic populations repeatedly supplanting one another in its various regions. “Blessed is he who leaves,” the religious nomads say. But such flight can be only temporary.
“Every culture is built upon defense mechanisms,” Tokarczuk says. “This is quite normal, that we try to suppress everything that’s not comfortable for us.” Her role, as she sees it, is to force her readers to examine aspects of history—their own or their nation’s—that they would rather avoid. She has become, she says, a “psychotherapist of the past.” ♦