Primeval and other times

Olga Tokarczuk
Primeval and other times
  • W.A.B.
    Warszawa, wyd. I, 1996
    125 x 195
    ISBN: 83-87021-01-6

The third novel in Olga Tokarczuk's career was greeted by the critics as her best book. Primeval and other times is an epic allegory about the destructive force of time, set against the over eighty-year story of a mythical village near Kielce and its inhabitants. Tokarczuk has tried in her work to create a myth which would be the means to find oneself in history. Combining realism with magic, ignoring the worlds of politics and history with a capital "H," she has created a novel of universal dimension.

The author was awarded the Polityka passport for 1996, and in 1997 the Koscielski Prize. The book was nominated for the NIKE Literary Prize, and won a readers' plebiscite.

"Whoever once saw the borders of the world will be imprisoned by this painful experience." (Prawiek and other Times)

"Tokarczuk builds a myth from the cuttings of real history, this is a history penetrated with order, where all events, even the tragic and bad have their justification." (Jerzy Sosnowski, Gazeta Wyborcza).


Wheat-Ear's Time

Wheat-Ear appeared in Prawiek in July or August. People gave her that name because she picked the ears of wheat left in the field after the harvest and baked them over a fire. Later, in the autumn, she stole potatoes. When the fields were bare in November, she began sitting in the inn. Sometimes, someone bought her a vodka, and sometimes she got a slice of bread with lard. People are not inclined to give things away for free, however, particularly in an inn. So Wheat-Ear became a whore. Tipsy and warm from the vodka, she went outside with men and gave herself to them for a ring of sausage. Since she was the only young woman in the vicinity who was so easy, the men followed her like dogs. Wheat-Ear was big and good-looking. She had fair hair and skin that the sun had not yet ruined. She looked everyone, even the priest, boldly in the face. She had green eyes, one of which kept shifting slightly sideways. The men who took Wheat-Ear in the bushes always felt strange afterwards. They buttoned up their pants and went back inside the stuffy tavern with red faces. Wheat-Ear never wanted to lie down the way the Good Lord intended. She said: "Why should I lie under you? I'm as good as you are." She preferred to brace herself against a tree or the wooden siding of the tavern, and then throw her skirt up onto her back. Her backside shone in the darkness like the moon. This is how Wheat-Ear learned about the world. There are two kinds of learning. From the inside out and from the outside in. The first is regarded as the best, or even the only kind. So people learn by going on long journeys, watching, reading, universities, lectures - they learn thanks to what happens outside them. People are stupid beings that have to learn. So they glue knowledge onto themselves, gather it like bees and have more and more of it, make use of it and process it. Yet the "stupid" thing at the center, that requires learning, does not change. But Wheat-Ear learned by assimilating things from the outside in. Knowledge that is only an encrustation changes nothing in people or changes them only apparently, from the outside, like changing clothes. But those who learn by taking things into themselves go through unending changes, since they incorporate into their very being the things that they learn. So Wheat-Ear, by taking the smelly, dirty peasants into herself, became them. She was drunk like them, frightened of the war like them, excited like them. What's more, by taking them into herself in the bushes behind the inn, Wheat-Ear also took in their wives, their children, and their reeking, unventilated wooden cottages from the neighborhood of Cockchafer Hill. She took into herself the whole village, and every ache in the village, and every hope. Such was Wheat-Ear's university. Her diploma was a swelling belly.

Translated by William Brand

Polish edition by Wydawnictwo W.A.B. German edition by Berlin Verlag: Berlin (Spring 2000) "Prawiek is a place located at the center of the universe." Thus begins Olga Tokarczuk's third novel. The village is small; the perspective grand, even metaphysical. There are books that overwhelm a reader from the first sentence on, not by the violence of what happens in them, but by the power and beauty of clear, simple language. Prawiek and Other Times, by the young, already well-respected author Olga Tokarczuk, is without a doubt such a book. It is at the same time both realistic novel and poetic fairy-tale about the world. The author recounts the history of a hamlet in which the fortunes of several generations of a couple of families take place, between World War I and the 1980s. By no means is this a tiresome history lesson, although history is ever-present and has an often merciless effect on the lives of the novel's protagonists. Rather, it is the chronicle of average, modest people struggling for their happiness, their families, and their futures, for life and survival in the chaos of history. It is certainly not without significance that the names and surnames in this novel have an expressive, symbolic quality, like the rivers Black and White, for example, or the families Divine and Heavenly, Cherubini and Serafini. Similarly, the village is guarded on all sides by the archangels Raphael, Gabriel, Michael, and Uriel. This metaphysical point of view is present throughout the work, parallel to factual history. As with Prawiek and Other Times and Olga Tokarczuk's earlier novels, Polish literature is frequently marked by religious connotations, an unusual feature in more secularized countries. For this reason, this literature-provided that it is translated and published - can forge for us, the inhabitants of such countries, bonds to a cultural tradition and spiritual pedigree that we are slowly, increasingly, forgetting. In the wave of movements of "The New Spirituality", which often have an explicit commercial dimension, we can see evidence of the human need to contemplate great and timeless problems. This book of Olga Tokarczuk's is an excellent proposal for the person who is searching.

Lennart Ilke