Ever since Olga Tokarczuk won the 2018 Nobel prize, her growing legions of English language fans have been eagerly awaiting the translation of her 1,100 page historical epic The Books of Jacob. So it’s both surprising and amusing to find it gazumped by a slender picture book, meditating on the value of patience.
The Lost Soul is the Polish author’s first venture into picture books, and it pours a childlike sense of wonder into a once-upon-a-time tale that is already resonating with adults around the world. “I adore the picture book,” she says. “It’s a unique form of communication that sets off a sort of proto-cinema in our minds. The language has to be limited to what’s absolutely essential. It’s the picture that carries the story. For me it’s a powerful, primeval way of telling a story that’s able to get through to anyone, regardless of age, cultural differences or level of education.”
Aptly, for a book published in a time of unprecedented stress, it’s a fable of a man’s decision to chill out and reconnect with himself, alone in a country cottage – though at first, he doesn’t even realise that he needs to do so. “His life was all right without his soul – he slept, ate , worked, drove a car and even played tennis,” it opens. “But sometimes he felt as if the world around him were flat, as if he were moving across a smooth page in a math exercise book, entirely covered in evenly spaced squares.”
After suffering a panic attack in a hotel bedroom, he takes off to see a wise doctor who advises him to take some time out, because only by sitting still and patiently waiting will he be able to reconnect with his soul. The story, which unfolds on pages latticed like a maths exercise book, is a collaboration with illustrator Joanna Concejo, who has fed and watered the short text so that it blossoms across 48 pages.
The pair, who are already working on a second book, first met while sneaking out for a cigarette at the Paris book fair. “I said I loved her books, and it turned out she knew who I was, and was familiar with my illustrations,” says Concejo, who has lived in France since graduating from art school in Poland. “I was fascinated by Joanna’s work,” says Tokarczuk. “Somehow, to me her pictures were soothing and calming. I found them irresistible.”
Their collaboration began when Tokarczuk was approached to write a picture book by one of Poland’s leading children’s publishers. She dug out the story, which had been languishing unfinished and untitled in her computer, and immediately suggested Concejo to illustrate it. “I can’t actually remember how I came to write it,” she says. “It started life as a sort of tribute to someone who’s always in a hurry and never has any time, because he’s a man of action, working hard non-stop. Then I developed it, and this little story emerged. The theme of a soul in search of its owner appears in various cultures; it’s one of those basic narratives that turns up now and then, in any place and at any time.”
She is clear that the finished work is as much Concejo’s as her own: it was the illustrator’s idea to personify the soul as a young girl, and to represent the growth of the man’s soul in pots full of plants, notably tumbling geraniums. “Yes, there are lots of geraniums,” says the illustrator. “I love houseplants and I also have them on my balcony. I used not to like them – I thought they were rather dull and uninteresting. But in time I’ve learned to appreciate them. Maybe because they’re very hardy, and if you take care of them, they show their gratitude with lots of blossoms.”
Since being published in Poland in 2017, The Lost Soul has sold more than 100,000 copies in 21 languages, and is finally coming out in English in a translation by her longtime collaborator Antonia Lloyd-Jones. “I wasn’t expecting the book to be such a huge success, but it soon became clear that many people were buying it as a gift for a close friend to show that they care, to express their best wishes. The book was like a message. And there were others who just wanted to put it on the coffee table, as something to look at while relaxing. I like both these reasons for buying it,” says Tokarczuk.
Does the restrained palette and retro-imagery of people playing in a wintry Polish landscape make it a picture book for adults rather than children? “I think picture books are increasingly important, and a lot of adults are interested in this sort of book, where a large part of the message is conveyed by the images. But I never try to adapt my style to fit a particular audience. I’m not sure I know what that means, or how to do it,” says Concejo.
“The world in Joanna’s drawings looks as it was a few decades ago, which is clearly a reference to the childhood of people who are now adults,” adds Tokarczuk. “It’s amazing how calming and cathartic it can be to immerse yourself in the world of your childhood.”
The Lost Soul by Olga Tokarczuk, translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones and illustrated by Joanna Concejo, is published by Seven Stories Press on 18 March. To order a copy, go to guardianbookshop.com. Interview translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones.