Historical Perspective in Olga Tokarczuk’s Latest Writing

Aleksander Fiut writes in “Postmodernizm à la polonaise” (Nagłos, no. 23 [148] June 1996, 181–196) that one of the main features of Polish postmodernism is an “escape from history,” accompanied by a “retreat from the fatherland” (“ucieczka od historii” “rejterada z ojczyzny”). While Fiut successfully argues this point with regard to Olga Tokarczuk’s first two novels, E. E. (1995) and Podróż ludzi księgi (1996), it is decidedly inapplicable to Tokarczuk’s latest writing, the novels Prawiek i inne czasy (1996) and Dom dzienny, dom nocny (1998), and the short story collection Szafa (1998).

It is difficult to imagine an English title for Prawiek i inne czasy (currently being translated) that will so aptly confer the game Tokarczuk plays with the concepts of time and space and not be somehow awkward at the same time. “Prawiek,” which can be translated as “the long ago” or “time immemorial,” is, in the novel, a place, a small town. “Inne czasy” refers literally to “other times,” but also to other events in space, for the novel is arranged in small units, each of which is called a “czas,” a unit of time, or a pulsation, which can be measured only by the event which occurs within it. Indeed, Tokarczuk continues this sense of spatialized time—or temporalized space—in the novel’s first sentences: “Immemorial is a place which lies in the center of the universe. To walk across Immemorial from North to South takes an hour, walking quickly. The same from East to West. And if someone wanted to walk around Immemorial, not hurrying, looking at everything carefully and thoughtfully—that would take an entire day. From morning to night.” [my translation]

The novel goes on to tell the history of the town by relating the stories of its inhabitants, their animals, their guardian angels, their possessions, their God, and their land. There are clues which reveal that this history begins with the First World War and ends sometime in the seventies, but never are we given exact dates.

Dom dzienny, dom nocny (House of Day, House of Night) also attempts to create the center of the world from the periphery. In this case the periphery is the small town where Tokarczuk lives, Nowa Ruda, a mountain backwater on the Czech border, south of Wrócław. Dom dzienny, dom nocny, like Prawiek, is postmodern in form; it is arranged in sections which Tokarczuk likens to video clips, each of which relates a past, present, or future event in the lives of individuals of the region, the flora and fauna, the buildings, or Tokarczuk herself (who admits that she is the heroine of the novel, if such a “heroine” can really be identified). Tokarczuk, in interviews, claims to be upset by the careless classification of her book by some reviewers as a collection of short stories, and rightfully so—Dom dzienny, dom nocny is most certainly a novel, as all of the sections serve its greater theme, as stated in the book by “Ona” (“She”): “Every single thing, even the tiniest one, is a part of a bigger thing, and the bigger things are an element of the great, powerful processes, so every little thing must have a purpose which plays a part in the general meaning.” It is, however, a novel which counters the traditional concepts of time and space with a distinctly feminine unity of events.

Tokarczuk herself characterizes her treatment of historical events in her latest two novels as “history from the kitchen” (“historia z kuchni,” personal interview, March 11, 1999). This paper posits that Tokarczuk uses women’s “gossip” to narrate the history of twentieth-century Poland. Drawing on the work of such feminist theorists as Joanne Frye and Susan Lanser, I explore her implied question of whether there isn’t a particularly feminine sense of time and space which requires that history be told not in the traditional, linear way, but in another way altogether.