Monday, November 21, 2011
Introducing Novelist Olga Tokarczuk, Pride of Poland (Neptune Aspects And All)
I met Olga Tokarczuk in Cognac, France in 2004. Both of us were invited to Litteratures Europeennes Cognac, a literary conference for writers who had books out in French that year. Mine was Le Front Chantilly (Flødeskumsfronten, O Paraiso de Hitler), and I was extremely excited to be there.
I had no idea who Olga was, and since no one ever has any idea who I am, it was a match made in Heaven. We spent the conference talking about Jung, astrology, and dreams. Later, one of the other Polish writers told me that Olga Tokarczuk was Poland's greatest writer. "But she's a vegetarian," I shouted. "How can a vegetarian who believes in astrology be a great writer?"
The next year I read Olga's House of Day, House of Night, her only book out in the US where it has sold somewhere between 13 and 14 copies. It had won the Gunther Grass prize in Germany, however, and was supposedly a post modern work with no beginning, middle or end.
"Oh, that sounds boring," I yawned and opened the book knowing I would hate something that pretentious. Half an hour later I was hooked. House of Day, House of Night turned out to be one of the best novels I've ever read - a collection of dreamy, meditative small stories where Silesia (Schlesien), a southern region of Poland, was the protagonist. I'd never read anything like it, and when I taught the book in a literature class at Portland State University I discovered that my students enjoyed it as much as I did.
I met up with Olga again in Berlin earlier this month where she was on book tour. She's a big name in Germany as well, and we had a great dinner together.
"There are so few writers who are interested in spirituality," she said and told me that her last book had gotten a lot of ridiculous reviews because her protagonist had been (gasp) an astrologer, and in many academics' eyes that made the book less convincing (!)
"I'm not surprised about that at all," I said with a little smile, having been at the receiving end myself of many scornful reviews for those of my Danish novels that are too spiritual.
We also talk a lot about our Neptune aspects and the writing process. I'm dead tired of being too controlled in my writing. I want my stuff to be weirder, less traditional, and more mythical. Olga offers a lot of great insights which go down very well with the Indian Palak Paneer we enjoy in Schoneberg on this dark November night.
Afterward we go out for coffee, and I give Olga a copy of The Tsar's Dwarf where I've borrowed a few lines from House of Day, House of Night as a homage to her wonderful writing.
Olga, on the other hand, gives me her first novel, Primeval and other times which has come out in English sixteen years after its publication in Poland, but not from a British or American publisher but from a Czech.
"That's weird," I laugh.
"I don't think American publishers believe in me," Olga sighs, making me feel fortunate that I've been treated so well in the US - a country that basically is a cemetery for European novelists who don't write thrillers.
But you can't keep a good woman down. And Olga Tokarczuk is a fantastic writer that I truly admire. If you haven't read her you should. She's out in about fourteen languages, so unless you're waiting for the new Stieg Larsson, what's holding you up?
Wikipedia, Olga Tokarczuk