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from the May 2010 issue

Olga Tokarczuk’s “Primeval and Other Times”

Reviewed by Tara Bray Smith

Then there is Primeval: protozoic, foundational, “the place at the centre of the universe.”

On April 10, 2010, heavy fog in the vicinity of the Russian forest of Katyn determined the fate of Poland’s president, Lech Kaczynski, and ninety-six other Polish leaders, including members of parliament, the heads of both the army and navy, the president of Poland’s national bank, and Anna Walentynowicz, the eighty-year-old former dockworker whose firing in 1980 catalyzed Solidarity. The fact that this rarest of delegations, bound from Warsaw to Smolensk on a Polish air force-flown Tupolev Tu-154, was flying to commemorate what has come to be known as the Katyn Massacre—the murder of more than 20,000 Polish officers by Soviet secret police in 1940—compounded the almost unimaginable loss, shrouding the tragedy in a terrible symbolism. It was “the curse of Katyn,” a “second Katyn,” and the forest, “a damned place,” in the words of former Polish president Aleksander Kwasniewski. “They wanted to cut off our head there,” Lech Wałęsa said shortly after the crash, “and here the flower of our nation has also perished.”

In a Times op-ed, Polish novelist Olga Tokarczuk offers her thoughts on the disaster:

I turned on the TV Sunday afternoon, and the more the night drew on, the more I heard words like nation, victim, mystical coincidence, sign, accursed place, true patriotism, Katyn, truth. Politicians who only a few days ago were at each other’s throats are now speaking, in trembling voices, of “deep meaning” and “the metaphysics of Katyn.” Not much more than 20 years ago, some of these same people suppressed the truth about the deaths at Katyn to follow the Communist Party line.

I am reminded that when a major trauma occurs, the kind that is both individual and collective, something happens that Jungian psychology calls an “abaissement du niveau mental”—a lowering of the level of consciousness. Intellect gives way to the gloom of the collective psyche. The horrified mind tries to find meaning, but lets itself be seduced by old myths.

It is a welcome analysis, especially considering Tokarczuk’s fiction often draws from the same well of symbolism that we do in searching for a reason for our calamities. Answers, even made-up ones, are balm against the pain of not knowing; or, borrowing from the language of Tokarczuk’s excellent novel Primeval and Other Times, recently translated from the Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones: “the sorrow that under[lies] everything. The sorrow that [is] present in every single thing, in every phenomenon . . .  it’s impossible to grasp everything at once.”

Yet we try, over and over again, through narrative, through religion, to give order to the universe. It is this human desire that Tokarczuk hones in on in Primeval and Other Times, the story of three generations of a small Polish village called Primeval, from 1914 to the beginnings of Solidarity in 1980. Centered around the fate of the Niebieski family (Michał, Genowefa, Misia Boska, and Izydor), whose struggles and loves during a century of war and occupation determine the book’s dramatic arc, Primeval and Other Times is structured into short chapters, the “Times” of the novel’s title. Each Time tells the story of a different character or locale—human, animal, vegetable, mineral, and spirit. Some of the Times are interrelated, as in the case of the Niebieski family; some closely peripheral, like that of Cornspike, a witch-healer who lives in the forest with her daughter Ruta; and some emerge only once, such as the Time of Kurt, a German officer stationed to Primeval during the occupation.

The cast of characters is sundry and, for a 280-page book, vast. (There are 78 Times in the novel and dozens of characters. The Virgin Mary, God, and the great mushroom spawn under the forest of Wodenica all make an appearance.) The narrative coheres in part due to the rhythmic quality of its short chapters, but there is also a vaguely allegorical quality at work. Certainly the novel’s characters see meaning everywhere: “God sees/Time escapes/Death pursues/Eternity waits,” reads a plaque on a neighboring town’s cemetery wall, and much of the novel’s action seems to fall under one of these four headings. In this sense, Primeval is a kind of “tale,” with its emphasis on structure, repetition, and archetype, where collective tradition (in this case, Central European Judeo-Christianity) provides the gloss to aspects of the text left unwritten. Characters move in and out, some appearing only briefly, and yet we are meant to—and do—see them as full, round beings, with sensible motivations and unique psychologies.

As we do in life, Tokarczuk’s characters try to solve the problem of their existence by analyzing the signs and symbols available to them, and Jung—whom Tokarczuk, a former therapist, names as an inspiration—is never far away. So one character, Rachel Szenbert, an innocent Jew from Jeszkotle, is shot with her baby while trying to escape the Germans; another, the aristocrat Squire Popielski goes mad. Captain Gropius, Kurt’s senior officer, speaks as a Nazi would. (“Look at them, Kurt, they’re not so bad after all. I even like the Slavs. Do you know that the name of this race comes from the Latin word sclavus, a servant? This is a nation with servility in its blood  . . ..”) These are not Ur-characters exactly, but each draws on some aspect of type.

Then there is Primeval: protozoic, foundational, “the place at the centre of the universe.” An archetypal Polish town perhaps, with its “copses, meadows, and common land,” but also a place to be found on a map, hazily, somewhere near Jeszkotle, south of Wrocław (Breslau), between Strzelin and Grodków on the border between Upper and Lower Silesia—a long-contested land, now Bohemian, now Austrian, Polish, Prussian, Polish again. An imaginary-yet-real place, and both tendencies are alive in Tokarczuk’s novel, infusing the writing with the tension of real life. Are the dandelions and eiderdowns and jam jars of Primeval real or symbolic? Is Katyn an accursed place or just a forest? We live and die, perhaps wrongly, according to narratives of our and others’ creation, yet it can be crushing, maddening to fasten to a vision of a world unimproved by myth or religion, one where “cold and sorrow” reign everywhere.

Though the span of Primeval and Other Times is epic, as are the struggles of its characters, the book feels rather like a nativity calendar: each flap opens to reveal a small story etched into the larger one. Ruta emigrates to Brazil; Izydor, who loves her, retires to his attic to contemplate God (or, in his genderless formulation, Ogod).The mushroom spawn under the forest of Wodenica continues, pale and deathless. The book’s many Times illuminate Primeval’s story, certainly—and Poland’s, that trampled-over country—but also ours, writ large. Murders, miscarriages, illicit love, runaways, torture, crazy aristocrats, war, genocide, and Communism all have their moment, but so do the minute arrangements of village life of the last century: children play under the kitchen table, villagers dump their unwanted dogs under the crazy lady’s hydrangeas, “In the Trenches of Manchuria” is played on a summer evening, and each drama, large or small, is knotted up and unraveled without prejudice or sentimentality.

Tokarczuk (and Lloyd-Jones, in her gorgeously paced, careful translation) writes plainly, knows the names of things around her, the trees and the flowers and the mushrooms, and most miraculously, is not chary of laying claim to objective states of being. Sometimes it seems that she is gently instructing us in a bit of folk wisdom or Jungian dogma. (Angels are “loving sympathy” embodied; the Bad Man crawls on all fours, has sharp white teeth.) Sometimes it feels that she is drawing back the mist that shrouds the world, so that we can at last understand it.

Happily, the forces of chaos, obliteration, and meaninglessness resound in Tokarczuk’s prose; as does simple, destabilizing irony. Ivan Mukta, a “young, slant-eyed” Russian officer, along with his soldiers, takes up residence in Misia Boska’s house during the war. Like Magic Mountain’s Pribislav Hippe with his “Kirghiz eyes” who sets a young Hans Castorp into confusion, both existential and sexual, Mukta is the Other who challenges Izydor Niebieski—a solitary, “special” boy—to imagine a world without God, with nothing “. . . as you say, underneath.” In an astonishing scene, Ivan Mukta copulates with a goat to teach a young Izydor about the birds and the bees. Here is how everything “fits together,” Mukta’s actions seem to say, mocking the mythmaking impulses of character, reader, and author all at once.

In the book’s final chapter, Misia Boska’s eldest daughter, Adelka—we have met her previously, though briefly—comes home from the city after many years, bearing chocolates and eau de cologne for her Uncle Izydor and a shirt and tie for her father. She finds Izydor dead, “the open spaces . . . inside him” rolled up, and her father, Paweł Boski, a former regional health inspector and Party man, sitting amidst the rubble of his former life, unafraid, at last, to die. Paweł makes it understood that he does not want his daughter to linger, and so Adelka takes her mother’s cherished coffee mill—itself stolen from somewhere in Russia by her grandfather during the first World War—turns around and boards the bus back to Kielce. The highway has been paved and the lime trees, those sentinels of eternity, look smaller. She is the only passenger, the mill the one lasting, continuous, material reminder of a village that might never have existed.

"Perhaps the grinder is a splinter off some total, fundamental law of transformation, a law without which this world could not go round or would be completely different,” Tokarczuk tenders early in the book. “Perhaps coffee grinders are the axis of reality, around which everything turns and unwinds, perhaps they are more important for the world than people. And perhaps Misia’s one single grinder is the pillar of what is called Primeval."

A strange image, nearly absurd in its symbolism, though in this glorious book such a claim strikes us as reasonable, even enlightening. There is the sense that this wholly twenty-first-century writer with her dreadlocks (her author photo is disarmingly ageless) has gone to a village she loves, observed its delicate machinery over years, and pried out of the teeth of its history something like observable truth—or at least a manifold version of it. She’s reckoned with our “abaissement du niveau mental,” investigated its origins, followed its conclusions, and witnessed, with loving sympathy, our desperate desire to make sense of things. The discernment is what matters. “If you take a close look at an object,” Tokarczuk writes, “with your eyes closed to avoid being deceived by the appearances that things exude around themselves, if you allow yourself to be mistrustful, you can see their true faces, at least for a moment.”

So Adelka begins to turn the handle of the mill, and the bus driver, surprised, looks at her in the rearview mirror. This is the last action of the novel and it leaves us wondering what this final gesture in a novel quite plush with symbolism might contain. (Is it meant seriously or is she playing? We can’t quite decide.) Though two of Tokarczuk’s short stories have been published on this Web site, only one of her other nine volumes of stories, poems, novellas, and essays have been translated into English, the novel House of Day, House of Night. Perhaps the surprise is something like ours in discovering this book. We can only hope for more.

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