Primeval and Other Times
‘In the beginning there was no God. There was no time or space. There was just light and darkness. And it was perfect.'
Olga Tokarczuk's fictional village – Primeval – rests in the heart of Southern Poland. Tellingly, in the original Polish, Primeval is ‘Prawiek'; translatable as ‘Long Ago', the term also describes old-woodlands found throughout Eastern Europe. It is here, amongst these dense forests, that the sphere of the sacred blends with the profane, as mystical phenomena, Catholicism, holiness and spirituality intertwine with the everyday.
A microcosm of Polish towns of the period, Primeval is to Tokarczuk what Visĕgrad was to Ivo Andrić in The Bridge over the Drina. The author is the village's chronicler and documents what she feels is worthy of retelling, combining fact and fiction to serve her own myth-making purpose.
Primeval and Other Times is the latest release from the delightful, Prague-based Twisted Spoon Press. Originally published in 1996, it is one of only two Tokarczuk novels published in English – the first, ‘House of Day, House of Night', was published by Writings From An Unbound Europe in 2003. Once more, translation duties fall upon Antonia Lloyd-Jones, whom we are most indebted to for bringing the voice of the post-Communist Polish modernists to English readers. The language reads smoothly and elegantly.
Whilst Tokarczuk strives to present an ethereal ‘other Poland', the pacing of the novel is set by historical markers, allowing readers to experience – along with those who live in Primeval – the passage of time. In the summer of 1914, before Poland's rebirth as a nation, Michał Niebieski is taken to join the Russian military forces. His wife Genowefa is left alone, giving birth to their first child in his absence, a daughter Misia: “We all need daughters. If we all started having daughters at once there'd be peace on earth.”
We witness Misia's life grow, flourish and decay. ‘Misia was just like the orchard, and like everything in the world that is subject to time. After her third child she grew fat, her hair lost its shine and went straight. Now her eyes were the colour of bitter chocolate.' Meanwhile, Primeval passes through the rural times of Polish independence, when God – Catholic, pagan, personal archangel or otherwise – is the pervading force; the coming of the German and Russian forces in World War II; the death of Stalin; and the religious and social thaw wrought by the communist People's Republic of Poland – a time when even the ‘forests were nationalized'.
Tokarczuk offers a stylized depiction of a 20th-century Polish village, in which every creed and class is encountered. Through a series of vignettes, the reader stumbles upon Primeval residents such as Cornspike, the downtrodden mother-earth figure who chooses to live outside of Primeval in the woodland; Squire Popielski, businessman and debatable-agnostic who strives to leave Primeval, firstly through analyzing the different layers of ‘God'; Pawel Bołski, a communist sympathiser; Ruta, the dreamer who plots to escape Primeval.
One could argue that Poland's history has been guided by forces beyond the nation's control, and Tokarczuk translates this to a personal level through Izydor, a hermit who, in the latter phase of his life, attempts to understand existence through collections of ‘fours' – points on a compass, seasons, cardinal virtues, etc. And as no monograph of Poland is complete without mention of its Jews, in Primeval they are omnipresent, offering advice as healers, mystics and traders.
Tokarczuk clearly loves Primeval's townsfolk, and characters are described in such an intimate way that readers too will struggle not to develop affection for their idiosyncrasies and often barmy foibles. Each character, like us, is flawed. (The men more so than the women of Primeval, as there is a small, feminist undercurrent throughout the novel: Cornspike never wanted to lie on her back in an honest way. She'd say: “Why should I lie underneath you? I'm your equal.”) But Tokarczuk assigns equal importance to inanimate objects, animals, spirits, and natural phenomena. And God imbues everything in Primeval: ‘It is strange that God, who is beyond the limits of time, manifests Himself within time and its transformations. If you don't know “where” God is – and people sometimes ask such questions – you have to look at everything that changes and moves, that doesn't fit into shape, that fluctuates and disappears........God is present in every process. God is vibrating in every transformation. Now He is there, now there is less of Him, but sometimes He is not there at all, because God manifests Himself in the fact that He is not there.'
While the philosophy in the novel appears irreverent at times (especially concerning Poland's alliance with strict Catholicism) the reader is spared polemical diatribes. God's position in society is questioned, and as the characters live their lives and eventually dissolve into non-existence, relationships with God change. No answers, merely musings, appear.In Primeval, the mere concept of God is often too large for one to grasp. Of course, we are in exactly in the same position.
Olga Tokarczuk was born in 1962 in Sulechów near Zielona Góra, Poland. A recipient of all of Poland's top literary awards, she is one of the most critically acclaimed authors of her generation.