Book of the month: Olga Tokarczuk

As with last month’s pick, July’s Book of the month came by way of a recommendation. I have known Magda Raczyńska, head of literature at the London-based Polish Cultural Institute for five years – ever since we both took an English PEN evening class about translation. Few people know more about what’s coming into English from Poland than Magda, so I always pay attention to her bulletins.

A few months ago, however, her email was particularly enthusiastic. A novel by one of Poland’s most celebrated contemporary authors, Olga Tokarczuk, had been translated into English by Jennifer Croft and was being published as Flights by Fitzcarraldo Editions in May of this year. As is often the case with many of the best books I read, something in the tone of her recommendation told me that this novel was special.

I lost no time ordering a copy. When it arrived, my inkling that this was no ordinary book was reinforced by a single endorsement printed on the back of Fitzcarraldo’s trademark minimalist blue cover: Tokarczuk is ‘a magnificent writer’, according to Belarusian Nobel Prize-winner Svetlana Alexievich, whose Chernobyl Prayer astonished me last year.

Flights is a challenging book to review. Woven of many threads tracing different kinds of journeys through space and time – stretching back across several centuries and around the globe – this is a novel that defies attempts to summarise it. Instead of the familiar formula of a central character or small group of characters forging their way through the thickets and over the obstacles an author throws in their path to create a single, loosely coherent journey, this is a vast ensemble piece in which voices appear and disappear and new perspectives surface as late as tens of pages from the end.

Rather than characters tying the narrative together, this novel is held together by ideas: reflections on the body, travel, life, death and what it means to move through space. These are expressed through a variety of tropes that crop up repeatedly in the fragmented accounts that, among many other things, portray the story of the Flemish anatomist Philip Verheyen, the journey of Chopin’s heart from Paris to Warsaw and a mother’s abandonment of her chronically ill child to ride the Moscow metro and sleep rough alongside an eccentric homeless woman.

The whole is carried on a current of exquisite writing (credit to Jennifer Croft here), which captures objects and experiences in startlingly fresh ways yet without the showiness that so often attaches itself to works that make heavy use of imagery. Time and again passages such as the description of nightfall on the opening page – ‘Now the dark soaks into my skin. Sounds have curled up inside themselves, withdrawn their snail’s eyes; the orchestra of the world has departed, vanishing into the park – had me reaching for my pencil to scrawl an enthusiastic ‘YES’ in the margin. In particular, the extended description of the death of a distinguished lecturer towards the end of the book is one of the best pieces of writing I have ever seen.

Although one of the many voices in the book claims that ‘describing something is like using it – it destroys; the colours wear off, the corners lose their definition, and in the end what’s been described begins to fade, to disappear,’ Tokarczuk challenges this notion on almost every page, bodying forth life in all its vibrancy and strangeness so that we can recognise it anew. She makes us nostalgic for experiences we have never had – childhood holidays in rural Poland, trips to remote islands, conferences in far-flung corners of the globe. Meanwhile, the assuredness of her writing means that the frequent shifts between perspectives and the resumption of some storylines long after their last appearance is rarely a problem.

That said, the narrative will be too diffuse for some readers. Although the majority of the book is taut and compelling, there are odd sections that feel aimless or contain somewhat self-indulgent digressions that an editor might not have let a lesser-known writer keep. I also wasn’t convinced by the inclusion of maps, drawings and other illustrations, most of which are too small to interpret easily (and probably mean that this book is better read in hard copy than on an ereader).

But it almost feels churlish to mention these gripes in the face of such brilliance. The quality of the whole more than makes up for them. In sum, I can only echo the words of a far more discerning reader: Tokarczuk is magnificent.

Flights (Bieguni) by Olga Tokarczuk, translated from the Polish by Jennifer Croft (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2017)

Poland: big decisions

When I met Magda Raczyńska, head of literature at the Polish Cultural Institute, through an English PEN course I attended a few months ago, I knew she would be the person to help me pick this book. In fact, Magda did much more than recommend one book, posting a whole host of fascinating-sounding suggestions on the A Year of Reading the World Facebook page. Delighted, I added them to the list.

But this left me with another dilemma: how on earth was I going to choose just one book from this torrent of tempting titles? Realising that I was a bit overwhelmed, Magda stepped in again. She would give me her top two choices: if I was looking for a pageturner, she recommended the forthcoming translation of Grażyna Plebanek’s Illegal Liaisons. If I was after a challenging read, Dorota Masłowska’s Snow White and Russian Red would be her number-one pick.

While I was agonising between the two, I got an email from Joanna at Stork Press. She wanted to let me know about a Polish book they were publishing in October, Illegal Liaisons by Grażyna Plebanek. Would I be interested in seeing an advance copy? I decided to let serendipity make the decision for me. Illegal Liaisons it would be.

Set in Brussels in the late 2000s, the novel follows Polish father and fairy-tale writer Jonathan as he tries to juggle family life and an extramarital affair. Overshadowed by his wife Megi’s impressive career at the EU, he finds a new sense of purpose in the arms of her colleague Simon’s girlfriend, Andrea. But as the risk of discovery and the expectations of their respective partners, friends, colleagues and relatives exert ever greater pressure on the covert relationship, Jonathan finds himself forced to examine the decisions that have led him to this point in life and, ultimately, to choose what sort of man he wants to be.

Plebanek is exceptionally good at depicting the dynamics of relationships. Whether she is describing the ‘crop rotation of work-family’ or the subtle power play that leaves Jonathan agonising over Andrea’s texts in the small hours, the author captures the minute shifts in the way we relate to one another that force us to renegotiate our place in the world every day, if not every hour. Much of the interaction described in the novel is so natural and well-observed that reading the book often feels more like eavesdropping on a private conversation than consuming a published work.

As a consequence, the sex scenes – which I as a British reader, raised on the mixture of vague, apologetic descriptions and dutiful blow-by-blow accounts that characterises much UK writing about physical intimacy, generally regard with dread and impatience – feel effortless. There is also a nice extra dimension in the exploration of the way an artist’s emotional life spills into his creations, as reflected by the wilful characters in the story Jonathan struggles to write over the course of the book and the work of the students on his creative writing course.

The depiction of the international community in Brussels is interesting too. In this no man’s land where mothers of all nationalities jostle Jonathan at the school gates and job titles involve intangible, nebulous things like leasing, auditing, PR and human resources, it is hard to foster a sense of identity and belonging. As a result, Megi and Jonathan frequently find themselves running up against their Western European counterparts’ clichéd perceptions of Poles. Plebanek writes well about this and about the legacy of ‘communist schizophrenia, where one thing was said at school and another at home’ that still at times dominates Megi and Jonathan’s thinking.

However, such fine observations can only carry the book so far. Although Plebanek is careful to raise the stakes over the course of the narrative, the plot does feel a little static in the latter half of the book. As Megi, Jonathan, Simon and Andrea rotate around the same narrow spiral of dinner parties and drinks receptions, it’s tempting to wonder whether a few scenes might have been amalgamated in the interests of keeping the momentum up. In addition, the title, which seems to promise a romp through the criminal underworld rather than an extramarital affair (not illegal in Europe), is problematic.

However this does not detract from the fact that the book is, by and large, a very good read.  As a chronicler of domestic dynamics, Plebanek is up there with the best of them. This, the first of her novels to be translated into English, deserves to do well.

Illegal Liaisons (Nielegalne związki) by Grażyna Plebanek, translated from the Polish by Danusia Stok (Stork Press, 2012)