‘Primeval and Other Times’ by Olga Tokarczuk (Review)

My most recent post was on one of Nobel laureate Olga Tokarczuk’s earlier books, and today’s review continues the celebration with a look at another of those pre-Flights translations.  It’s another excellent, perhaps slightly neglected, novel, with all of the quirks and obsessions the Polish author’s fans have come to expect from her work – and it’s out there available for anyone that likes the sound of it 🙂

*****
Primeval and Other Times (once again translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, published by Twisted Spoon Press) has a familiar setting in rural Poland, with the first pages introducing us to the region known as Primeval.  It’s a small area consisting of a hill, some fields, a couple of villages and a small town, and as well as being the location for the whole of the novel, it acts as a microcosm of the world, focusing the upheavals of most of a century into one small location.

The story begins in 1914 and runs through to the ‘modern era’ (possibly the 1980s), and life in Primeval is related through a series of short sections, each entitled ‘The Time of X’, with X being the focus of that section.  Most follow the people of the region, with some characters constantly reappearing and others just given one moment in the sun.  However, some feature inanimate objects (such as the church’s icon of the Virgin Mary, or a game that the local squire becomes obsessed with), and some even revolve around nature (e.g. the trees, and the mushroom network lying beneath the forest floor).  It all makes for an intriguing, somewhat confusing story of a place, told by observing everything – living, dead and everything in-between.

It would be wrong to speak of main characters in the conventional sense, but the people making up two families probably appear the most throughout the book.  There’s Michał, the miller, and his wife, Genowefa, and once he comes back from a spell in a Siberian prison, his daughter, Misia, and later his simple son, Izydor, become more prominent.  This rather conventional family is contrasted with that of a young woman only known as Cornspike, whose wayward and promiscuous lifestyle leads to an unofficial exile in the forest of Primeval.  There she lives with her daughter Ruta, coexisting along with animals, plants, savage outcasts and ghosts, retruning occasionally to look back at what she left behind years ago.

Over two hundred and fifty pages, and seventy years or so, we follow the the locals of Primeval about their business.  Houses are built and collapse; families expand and disperse; armies occupy and are swept away again.  In the background, ghosts roam, bodies rot and angels watch over everything, when they can bring themselves to focus on earthly matters.  As you can imagine, it isn’t always easy to get your head around what’s happening in the book.  Yes, things change, but in many ways, the story seems almost timeless.  In the end, Primeval is still there, even though many of the characters aren’t – the real focus of the story is the land, and for the people who live there, and rarely leave, what happens elsewhere doesn’t really matter.

In fact, one of the more intriguing ideas of the book is that Primeval is actually a self-contained entity, with the outide world, unseen, unexperienced, merely a dream, just a kind of computer-generated supplement to the ‘real’ world. During their childhood, Ruta, who has grown up in the forest, takes Izydor to what she claims to be the boundary of Primeval, the point beyond which it’s impossible to go.  Naturally, he has his doubts and decides to prove her wrong:

He stepped back a few paces and started running towards the spot where, according to Ruta, the boundary ran,  Then he suddenly stopped.  He himself did not know why.  Something here wasn’t right.  He stretched his hands out ahead of him, and his fingertips disappeared.
Izydor felt as if he had split inside into two different boys.  One of them was standing with his hands held out ahead, and they clearly lacked any fingertips.  The other boy was next to him, and couldn’t see the first boy, or moreover his lack of fingers.  Izydor was both boys at once.
p.109 (Twisted Spoon Press, 2010)

He decides that it’s best not to push on, and perhaps that’s why he ends up never leaving the village…

Tokarczuk has a background in psychology, but her books seem to have a greater basis in philosophy, or even theology, and at the heart of the novel, the characters seem to be wrestling with the eternal question of what the point of life really is.  Religion is again a major focus, with a host of religious references and imagery, from the icon that talks, to the four Archangels said to guard Primeval at each major compass point.  Poland is, of course, a very religious country, and in a century where God’s image took quite a beating, the book looks to question His relevance in the modern world, as Izydor finds out when talking to Ruda:

“You’ve changed,” he said quietly.
She turned around abruptly and stopped.
“Of course I’ve changed.  Are you surprised?  The world is evil.  You’ve seen it for yourself.  What sort of a God created a world like this?  Either He’s evil Himself, or He allows evil to happen.  Or else He’s got it all messed up.”
You’re not allowd to talk like that…”
“I am,” she said and ran ahead. (p.161)

Sadly, she has good reason to feel jaded and hurt.  Her distressing and disturbing experiences during the war foreshadow more pain and suffering to come.

These ideas of Primeval as a world of its own and the role of God in our lives come together in perhaps the most interesting strand of the novel.  Here, the local squire receives a present from a rabbi he meets, and as Europe descends into chaos outside, he retreats into an existence revolving around the game he discovers inside the box.  The board features a series of eight worlds, each needing to be escaped before you can move on to the next, which is to be done not simply by throwing a die, but by dreaming the right kind of (inevitably for Tokarczuk) dream, as prescribed by the rather involved instruction manual.  In the meantime, several short ‘times’ describe the eight worlds, and what God did with them, ranging from the creation of a perfect world that humans decided to leave, to His rendering of a desolate landscape,  sterile and void of life.  The beauty of the writing here is that the squire’s obsession becomes every bit as important as the ‘real’ life going on outside the walls of his library.

A wonderful, thought-provoking work, Primeval and Other Times can be seen as a sort of history of twentieth-century Poland, with one small locale representing the whole country, but it’s also a novel examining how, and why, we live our lives.  Some people are obsessed with money, others enjoy nature; some look for meaning in God, while a few hope to find truth in books and games.  Yet only one thing is certain – all things, and people, come to an end, even if the world doesn’t, and the last pages show this, as the community we’ve spent time in begins to crumble.  You might be able to escape some of your worlds, but in the end, we’re all trapped here – how you spend the days you have left is, of course, entirely up to you…

10 thoughts on “‘Primeval and Other Times’ by Olga Tokarczuk (Review)

  1. This is the first book I’ve read by Tokarczuk and I thoroughly enjoyed it. There was quite an interesting debate on French radio the other day about whether it’s a “typically” Polish book (the French speakers’ opinion) or a book with a universal message (the Polish speaker’s opinion). What would you say?

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    1. Passage à l’Est! – I’m not sure I’m qualified to decide, really, but I suspect Tokarczuk would argue for the universal, as that’s a theme that came across heavily in her Nobel lecture 🙂

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    1. Max – Oops, actually it’s not that. In an interview (in German), Esther Kinsky, a writer who translated some of Tokarczuk’s early work, basically said she doesn’t rate her and only translated her in order to work on ‘better’ writers later…

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      1. Ah. Well, that’s a bit odd but honestly I don’t agree. Or at least I don’t agree re the present work. It’s not impossible I suppose that earlier work was weaker. It’s fairly common for writers to need time to find their feet.

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