Olga Tokarczuk's new book is like a collection of longer, shorter and extremely brief stories, but in fact it forms a carefully thought-out whole and is very artfully constructed. The theme of the stories is a way of life that involves non-stop travelling. A traveller is someone who agrees to a lack of continuity in his reception of the world, to its disintegration into lots of pieces that are not necessarily logically connected. So this fragmentation also affects the structure of the narrative, which includes a multiplicity of plots that at first sight seem entirely separate. But in fact these stories have some common features, firstly to do with loss, defect and handicap, and secondly descending into the innermost recesses of the human body, techniques for making and preserving anatomical specimens, or simply the plastination of corpses.
On the one hand the book goes into the writer's personal story, into her private "I am", which serves as the title for two pieces at the beginning and end of the collection. On the other it is deeply immersed in the history of man and (especially Greek) mythology, devoted to considering the phenomena of life and death. Two concepts of time clash here: the circular notion of eternal returns typical of myths and religion, and the progressive notion typical of human life as it runs towards mystery and death, where there is a lack of belief in the constant motion of eternal returns to soothe existential fears. This book does not offer any easy answers to the difficult questions, and at every step we come up against a mystery that is impossible to disentangle. Instead of answers, here we can observe the amazing reflections and correspondences between various phenomena (e.g. all sorts of versions of "entering the labyrinth", losses, pilgrimages, floods of water or blood that inundate the world or the body, diverse aspects of the problem of defending the body's dignity). This version of the world's recurrence is accessible to us, offering a faint hope that it might be reasonable and ordered. The author gives us nothing more in the form of a logical, solid plot, but just provides some singular "points of reference" such as the mysterious Greek concept of kairos, which recurs a few times in various stories included in the book. This is a very intelligent work by a mature author - perhaps the best book that Olga Tokarczuk has written so far.
My parents weren’t an entirely settled tribe. They moved from one place to another many times before finally stopping for longer at a provincial school far from a proper road or a railway station. Travelling became just crossing the county boundary, a trip into town. Shopping, handing in documents at the local council office, ever the same hairdresser on the marketplace by the town hall, in the same gown, laundered and bleached to no effect because the customers’ hair dyes left calligraphic stains on it, like Chinese characters. Mama would have her hair dyed while my father waited for her in the Nowa café, at one of the two little tables set outside. He’d read the local paper, where the most interesting thing was always the crime section, with reports about cellars being robbed of plum jam and pickled gherkins.
And there were those tourist holiday of theirs, timid outings in a Skoda packed to the ceiling. Long in the preparation, they were planned in the evenings in early spring when the snow had only just gone but the ground had not yet recovered; they had to wait until it would finally yield its flesh to the plough and hoe, until it would let itself be fertilised, after which it would take up all their time from dawn to dusk.
They belonged to a generation that drove about with a camping trailer, pulling a substitute home along behind them. They took a gas stove, some small folding tables and chairs, a plastic rope and wooden pegs for hanging out the washing during stopovers, waterproof plastic tablecloths and a camping picnic set, with coloured plastic plates, spoons, knifes and forks, salt cellars and glasses.
Somewhere on the road, at one of the flea markets he and my mother were especially fond of visiting (whenever they were not busy taking photos of each other in front of churches and monuments) my father bought an army kettle made of copper, a container with a tube in the middle, into which you put a handful of twigs and then lit it. And even though he could use the electricity at the campsites he used to boil water in this pot, pouring out smoke and making a mess. He would kneel over the hot device, proudly listening to the boiling water bubbling inside, then pour it over the tea bags like a real nomad.
They’d get well settled in at the purpose-made places, at the campsites, where they always kept company with people like themselves, having chats with the neighbours over the socks hung out to dry on the guy ropes. They worked out the routes for their journeys with the help of a guidebook, making a careful note of the attractions. Before midday there was bathing in the sea or a lake, and in the afternoon an outing to the ancient sites finishing with supper – almost always out of a jar: goulash, rissoles or meatballs in tomato sauce, so they only had to boil some pasta or rice. They were endlessly saving money, saying the zloty is weak, it’s the world’s smallest penny, looking for places where they could plug into the electricity, then reluctantly packing up to move onwards, without ever leaving the metaphysical orbit of home. They were not real travellers because they only went away in order to return home. And they came back with relief, with a sense of having done their duty. They came back to collect piles of letters and bills from the sideboard, do a great big wash and bore their yawning friends to death showing them their photos – this is us in Carcasonne and here’s my wife in front of the Acropolis.
Then for a whole year they’d live a settled life, that strange life when at daybreak you go back to what you left off in the evening, where your clothes are imbued with the smell of your own flat and your feet tread a tireless path on the carpet.
That’s not for me. I obviously lack a gene that means that as soon as you stop still in one place for any length of time you start to put down roots. I have tried many times, but my roots have always been too shallow and I’ve been overturned by the slightest gust of wind. I’ve never been able to germinate, I’m simply devoid of that plant capacity. I don’t draw sap from the ground, I’m an anti-Antaeus. My energy comes from motion – from the shaking of buses, the roar of aeroplanes, or the rocking of ferries and trains.
I am conveniently small and compact. I have a small, undemanding stomach, powerful lungs, a solid belly and strong arm muscles. I don’t take any medicine, I don’t wear glasses and I don’t use hormones. I cut my hair with a trimmer once every three months, I hardly use any cosmetics. My teeth are sound, not very straight perhaps, but they’re all there, with just one old filling, in the left lower number six. My liver’s fine. My pancreas is fine. My left and right kidneys are in excellent condition. My aorta is fine. My bladder is all right. Haemoglobin – 12.7. White blood cells – 4.5. Haematocrit – 41.6. Platelets – 228. Cholesterol – 204. Creatinine – 1.0. Bilirubin – 4.2, and so on. My IQ – if you believe in that – is 121; adequate. I have a particularly well developed spatial imagination, almost eidetic, whereas I have poor lateralisation. Personality profile – not constant, maybe untrustworthy. Age – mental. Gender – grammatical. I prefer to buy paperback books so I can leave them on the platform for others to read with no regrets. I don’t collect anything.
I did graduate, but in fact I have never learned a profession, which I greatly regret; my great-grandfather was a weaver, he would whiten the woven cloth by spreading it out on the hillside, setting it out in the burning rays of the sun. Interweaving the warp and the weft would suit me very well, but there’s no such thing as a portable loom, and weaving is a craft for settled people. I do knit on journeys. Unfortunately, lately some airlines have banned taking knitting needles and crochet hooks on board. As I said, I have never learned a trade, yet despite what my parents were always telling me I have managed to get by, taking various jobs along the way without ever sliding to the bottom.
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones