The Swedish Academy has made many mistakes in recent years and, in the light of all its hand-wringing rhetoric about diversifying its remit, this week’s award of two Nobel prizes in literature to European writers might seem like another. But in the Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk, it has found not only a fine winner but a culturally important one.
Tokarczuk has won the 2018 medal, which was postponed after the jury was engulfed in scandal. The year is significant since, although she has been a star in her own country for the best part of three decades, and has had two previous novels translated into English, it was in 2018 that she made her international breakthrough by winning the Man Booker International prize. She won it with a novel, Flights, which was originally published in Polish in 2007.
“Sometimes I wonder how my life would have worked out if my books had been translated into English sooner,” mused the 57-year-old author earlier this year, “because English is the language that’s spoken worldwide, and when a book appears in English it is made universal, it becomes a global publication.” This might not be a desirable state of affairs but for writers from many parts of the world it is a fact of life. Her Booker win, as Antonia Lloyd-Jones – one of her two English language translators – remarked, was not just a triumph for her but for the whole of Polish literature.
By then, her canny independent publisher, Fitzcarraldo, had already followed up with Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead. Whereas Flights was one of the glittering historical and geographical collages that Tokarczuk calls her “constellation novels”, Drive Your Plow is very different: a William Blake-infused eco-thriller which significantly extended her reputation, not least because it is much easier to read.
Drive Your Plow was also 10 years old by the time it reached English. This tale of an elderly female eccentric investigating the murders of humans and animals in a remote forest community pursues the alliance of power, money and patriarchy to its grisly conclusion, sounding a klaxon that seems entirely in tune with our current political and environmental crisis. When Agnieszka Holland’s expressionistic film of the novel, Pokot (Spoor), was premiered at the Berlin film festival last year, it was denounced by a Polish news agency as “a deeply anti-Christian [work] that promoted eco-terrorism”.
Tokarczuk is no stranger to such run-ins with self-styled Polish patriots. A flamboyantly dreadlocked vegetarian feminist, she lives with her translator partner and their dogs in a rural area of Lower Silesia that only became part of Poland after the second world war. Her most recent novel, The Books of Jacob, tells the story of an 18th-century religious leader Jakub Frank, who led the forcible conversion of his Jewish followers to both Islam and Catholicism at various points. When it was published in 2014, she was denounced as a traitor for daring to suggest in an interview that Poland wasn’t just a brave survivor of centuries of oppression but had been a pretty appalling oppressor itself at times in its history. For a while her publisher had to hire bodyguards for her – though the pill was considerably sweetened by the success of what many consider her masterpiece. It sold 170,000 copies in hardback and won its author the country’s biggest literary prize, the Nike, for the second time.
Tokarczuk has since made a playful detour into speculative fiction with a short story collection, Bizarre Stories, as well as finding time to administer the boutique literary festival she has run for years near her home. Meanwhile, her American translator Jennifer Croft is working round the clock to deliver the 1,000-page Books of Jacob in time for publication in English in March 2021. “It’s such a big book that I am not sure we will be able to bring it forward,” said her publisher.