Magazine Poland

Olga Tokarczuk’s Nobel Prize, and what Central Europe has to say to the world

For the first time since 1943, no Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded in 2018 due to a scandal of sexual assault which shook the institution. On October 10 this year, the Swedish Academy finally revealed the 2018 Nobel Prize laureate: Olga Tokarczuk.

Olga Tokarczuk awarded with Nobel Prize for life’s work

Olga Tokarczuk is the fifteenth woman and the sixth Polish writer, after Wisława Szymborska, Henryk Sienkiewicz, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Czesław Miłosz and Władysław Reymont, to be rewarded with the Nobel Prize for her writing career.

She was by no means a stranger to the international literary stage. In 2008, she received the Nike Award, Poland’s top literary prize, for Bieguni (translated as Flights in English)— and once again in 2015 for Księgi Jakubowe albo Wielka podróż przez siedem granic, pięć języków i trzy duże religie, nie licząc tych małych (The Books of Jacob, or a Great Journey Through Seven Borders, Five Languages and Three Major Religions, Not Counting the Small Ones).

She also became the first Polish author to ever receive the prestigious Man Booker International Prize last year for Flights, ten years after its first publication in Poland, along with her translator, Jennifer Croft. Olga Tokarczuk, 57, was praised by the Swedish Academy “for a narrative imagination that with encyclopedic passion represents the crossing of boundaries as a form of life”.

Born in 1962 in Sulechów, in the Western part of Poland, Tokarczuk was primarily a psychologist, strongly influenced by Carl Jung’s theories – an influence that she still acknowledges in her literary work. She debuted in literature with a volume of poetry, Miasto w lustrach (Cities in Mirror) back in 1989.

One of the most profound and versatile voices in contemporary literature

Ever since her first books were published, Tokarczuk demonstrated a great versatility in the topics and stories she addresses: from Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead (Prowadź swój pług przez kości umarłych), a novel telling the story of Janina Duszejko, a woman convinced that the hunters of her town are killed by the animals in revenge, to The Books of Jacob, the nine hundred-page path of Jakub Frank, a heretic convinced that he is the messiah, Tokarczuk never ceases to stretch and push back the limits of literature.

She also never stopped to stand for her ideas – a feminist, vegetarian, ecologist and ruling PiS-critic, Tokarczuk has even been accused of being a “targowiczanin”, a traitor to the Polish nation, because of her books.

The hostility she sometimes received in her own country did not keep her from becoming an important figure of the international literary landscape. Her books have been translated in more than twenty-five languages, and, before the Nobel, had already received one of the most important international literary awards, the Man Booker International Prize (also considered as a potential prelude to the Nobel Prize) for Flights.

In this book, which is probably her most well-known outside of Poland, Olga Tokarczuk reflects on the topic of travels and wandering in 116 short stories, from one sentence to several pages-long. She notably tells the story of Ludwika Jędrzejewicz, Chopin’s sister, turning back to Poland with the heart of her dead brother.

The book revolves around the idea of the Bieguni, a Slavic sect whose motto was the eternal, never-ending movement, travel and wandering, a meaningful topic for a woman who never left her country before she was twenty-eight. Throughout her work, Olga Tokarczuk established herself as one of the most important humanist voices of contemporary literature.

Central Europe in the spotlight of this year’s Literature Nobel Prize

One the same day as nomination of Tokarczuk, the Swedish Academy nominated Austrian author Peter Handke for the Nobel Prize in Literature 2019. As Olga Tokarczuk herself noticed in an interview, both of them are native from the same region: Central Europe.

When asked about the uniqueness of Central European writing, here is what Tokarczuk answered: “I think just right now we have a problem in Central Europe with democracy. We are trying to find out our own way to … how to manage with those problems. And I think that such a prize, literary prize, in a way will give us a kind of optimism that we have something to say to the world, and that we are still active, and we still have an ability to express ourselves, and we have something profound to tell to the world.”

Today, we can hope that Olga Tokarczuk’s fellowmen and women will keep these words in mind while going to vote in one of Poland’s most crucial elections since 1989.

Written by Louise Ostermann Twardowski

A French student of Polish descent, Louise studies languages (Polish, Hungarian, Russian), linguistics and literature in Strasbourg. Passionate about Central European history, culture and literature, she joined the team of Kafkadesk contributors in April 2019. You can check out her articles here!