Meaning and Time in "Prawiek i Inne Czasy" (The Long Ago and Other Times) by Olga Tokarczuk

Katarzyna Olga Beilin, Williams College

Prawiek i Inne Czasy (Warsaw, 1996), one of the most popular novels written in Poland in recent years, tells a story of three generations of peasants in Prawiek, a little Polish village, from the First World War until almost today. In a surreptitious way it is also a metafictional novel, a story of creation which reveals that creation's main cause is the creator's search for self- understanding. If we use this idea to explain the meaning of the non-fictional world, we will see that people lost their chance of understanding the world when they imagined that God is unchangeable. Tokarczuk suggests that God reveals himself in changes as he gets to know himself in time. The reader is invited to think that in a way God is time, for it is time that produces meaning in stories. In effect, the meaning of human life which has been traditionally based on the idea of the unchangeable - eternity of the soul as well as duration of certain artifacts and values - is in Prawiek treated rather as a by-product of the very passage of time.

For a modern hero time is a destructive element since it condemns him to failure, unavoidable at the end, and thus makes vain all his endeavors and achievements. It ruins beauty, takes away happiness; it even seems that sooner or later it will render any past existence meaningless. In Prawiek, similarly as in Levinas' philosophy, meaning of life is construed thanks to the perception of the passage of time and it is only possible to perceive time in the presence of others. Tokarczuk seems to agree with Levinas that it is each other that we need to face as we pass through life rather than the sky where we posit the unchangeable which we believe to be perfect. Thanks to our temporal condition, we are not capable of understanding everything but meaning is precisely the result of this limitation for meaning is only possible in a world which preserves mystery.

In this paper I will comment on these and on some other traditional literary questions which, in this novel, are given surprising answers since they are considered from a quite unusual perspective, the perspective of time.