Nobel Prize time is always interesting, and this year it was even more so, what with the double award in literature. It’s probably fair to say that one of the laureates wasn’t the most popular of choices, but the other selection met with much wider agreement. Of course, a common consequence of these prizes is to get people scrambling to read the writers, and their back catalogue, and that’s also the case today. My latest choice is an old book, but, as you’ll see, one with strong links to the works the writer is best known for in the English-speaking world – and, more importantly, it’s also a great book in its own right 🙂
Olga Tokarczuk’s House of Day, House of Night (translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones) takes us to southern Poland, in what was previously German territory, close to the Czech border. The book begins with a woman and her husband, R., moving into an old house near the village of Nowa Ruda, or Neurode, and the first section introduces us to their new home, with its expansive gardens, or fields, and the water running inconveniently underneath. We also get to meet Marta, their elderly neighbour, who is to be one of the book’s more prominent characters. Enigmatic, and always feeling the cold, she generally keeps her peace, coming out with the odd telling comment.
As the book develops, these domestic pieces become just one aspect to the novel, interspersed between other fragments of differing length, many introducing new stories. There’s the legend of a female saint, and the unusual monk who writes her history, and the story of a family of wealthy locals who must leave their enormous home when the Russians arrive. Later, we also hear about the classics teacher whose wartime hardships come back to bite him – and others – when he returns home. The pieces move us backwards and forwards in time, darting from life to life, but in terms of location, everything is centred on this small collection of houses near the border.
Tokarczuk’s Nobel win was widely acclaimed, and you won’t find very many dissenters out there. This is surprising in some ways as most Anglophone readers would only have heard of two of her books, Flights and Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, and may not even have read those. There were a couple of earlier attempts to bring her into English, though, of which House of Day, House of Night was the first – and an excellent start it makes for, too.
With its focus on life in a village on the border, there are definite hints of Drive Your Plow…, heightened by the remote location with its people living far away from the bright lights. There’s a definite sense of a split personality, both in terms of the border itself, Czech-Polish, and the changing ownership of the region, with the Germans handing it over to the Poles, necessitating a massive migrational shift as German speakers leave and Polish speakers from the East arrive. One story that nicely combines both of these ideas features an elderly German who returns to his birth place and passes away at the top of a mountain. The fact that his body lies across the border poses some practical and ethical issues for the authorities that find it:
They were probably thinking about their supper, for which they’d be late, and about the report they’d have to write. And then, acting in unison, they shoved Peter’s leg from the Czech to the Polish side. But that wasn’t quite enough for them, because then they gently tugged his whole body northwards into Poland. And, feeling guilty, they went off in silence.
p.97 (Northwestern University Press, 2003)
It’s a poignant tale, but there’s a dark humour to it, too, just one example of many scattered throughout the book.
There are also links to Drive Your Plow… in the actions of the main local characters. The narrator is fascinated by the stars and how they affect our lives, and she and her friends hold parties to watch the moon, its rises and eclipses. Meanwhile, Marta is depicted as the wise woman of the area, knowing all about the mushrooms (deadly and edible, although the line is rather murky), always cold, even in her cardigan in summer, and mysteriously unseen in winter. In many ways, these characters can be seen as the genesis of Janina Duszejko, as if you make a combination of the narrator’s voice and the old woman, you come up with something very similar to the irascible ‘heroine’ of Tokarczuk’s later book.
In truth, though, once you move past the superficial similarities with Drive Your Plow…, it’s Flights that House of Day, House of Night truly resembles. Tokarczuk herself has linked them under the heading of ‘constellation’ novels, where seemingly disparate stories are intricately connected, and the style will be instantly recognisable to anyway who has read her International-Booker-winning work. One of the joys of reading House of Day, House of Night is becoming absorbed in these longer tales, which then often reappear, either straight away, or later in the book. When you then start to see the connections between these different strands, the reading experience is further enriched.
Perhaps the most prominent of these recurring themes is the story of Kummernis, a legendary Silesian saint whose chastity the Lord preserves in an unusual way:
In the windowless room stood Kummernis, but it was not the same woman that they all knew. Her face was covered with a silky beard and her hair fell flowing to her shoulders. From the tattered bodice of her dress there protruded two naked, girlish breasts. (p.63)
This gender-fluid story is given greater depth when it is discovered by a monk who has his own doubts, not just about his vocation, but also his gender identity. The story ties into another of the novel’s concerns, death, and its inevitability, but towards the end of the book, a different strand reminds us of the monk when a childless couple each fall for a stranger – with the same name…
House of Day, House of Night runs to less than 300 pages, but there’s an awful lot here to process, and like Flights, it’s a book that almost demands to be reread. Most readers will need time to process all the connections, and the ideas Tokarczuk wants to discuss. Prominent among these are the changes wrought by time, the identity of people and places, and the nature of life and whether death is something to be avoided, or perhaps the whole purpose of our existence. A comment made by Paschalis the monk might, perhaps, provide an insight into the writer’s intentions:
And he realized that the aim of his writing was to reconcile all possible time scales, places and landscapes into one single image that would remain fixed, never ageing or changing. (p.117)
Then again, Tokarczuk is far more concerned with the fluidity of her tales than any fixed structure. And I haven’t even mentioned the focus on dreams yet (the narrator’s bizarre dreams, the examples people post on the internet, the local woman who believes her true love is contacting her while she sleeps), which could have made for a post of its own.
It all makes for an excellent novel, and I’d probably say it’s my favourite of the three Tokarczuk books I’ve read so far. Alas, there is one downside, though – it looks like it’s out of print at the moment in the UK, and the US edition seems fairly pricey. I’m sure that this will be rectified at some point in the not-too-distant future, but until then, you’ll have to find other ways to track it down (I found my copy in the university library, and you may be able to source a second-hand copy online if you’re lucky). Let’s hope the inevitable UK reprint comes sooner rather than later as House of Day, House of Night certainly deserves a wider audience – one befitting the writer’s new-found fame and status as a Nobel laureate 🙂