Olga Tokarczuk: Dom dzienny, dom nocny (House of Day, House of Night)
Nowa Ruda is a small town in south-western Poland. The property of the narrator of this book is actually on the Czech border. The town used to be in Silesia, in Germany, prior to the the end of World War II but in the boundary changes after the war became part of Poland. Tokarczuk lives in a small village nearby.
The narrator moved to the town three years before the novel starts. She is not named and lives with a man known only as R, who is presumably her husband. The novel is essentially stories of the inhabitants of and visitors to the town as well as the narrator’s own life.
Her nearest neighbour is Marta. Marta is an elderly, eccentric, enigmatic woman. She may or may not be senile or have incipient Alzheimer’s, according to the narrator but, I suspect, were she in a British or US novel, she would just be considered eccentric.
The narrator and R get to know Marta quite well. Ever since I’ve know [sic] her, I have wondered who Marta really is. She’s always giving me a different version of the facts about herself – even the year of her birth changes.
She won’t talk about herself, only about other people and then tells strange stories that rarely start at the beginning. You don’t have to leave home to know the world, she says, and her stories are all about local people. I have failed to understand Marta in the past and I don’t understand her now.
Marta barely sleeps, probably, according to her, only about two hours when it gets darks and then she stays awake, looking at the moon or at the town in the dark. But she looks after her garden, makes wigs and clears the water running down the street so that it does not flood the houses.
The other neighbours are eccentric in their different ways. Marek Marek had had a difficult childhood, abused by his father and he spent his childhood hiding from his father and then when an adult, fighting his father. Inevitably, he took to drink. Early on in the book he hanged himself. He is not the only person in this book to hang himself.
The other close neighbour is known only as Whatsisname. It is he who finds Marek dead but does nothing. He even sees him again a day later and still does nothing, leaving him there for four days till Marek’s sister found him. Like Marta, Whatsisname lives on his own and is eccentric.
The narrator gets interested in dreams and she tries to collect other people’s dreams, going to a website where people do this. She tries to analyse her dreams and those of others and comes to the conclusion that we all have common dreams. Indeed, some days, it seems to her, everyone is having the same dream.
We follow a host of other fascinating stories, such as Krysia, a bank clerk, who hears the voice of a man called Amos, he tells her roughly where he lives and she goes and finds him.
We learn about the local saint Wilgefortis aka Kümmernis, who is known for having the body of woman but a face that looks like Christ, complete with beard. We get her full story, including how she got the beard or, at least, a legendary version of the story. We also get the full story of the monk, Paschalis, who wrote her story, a monk who wanted to be a woman.
Because the town used to be in Germany, Germans who used to live there regularly visit during the summer months. The locals cash in and the young children beg sweets off the Germans. We follow the story of one German, Peter Dieter, who has returned and whose story perhaps does not turn out quite as he expected.
We also follow the stories of two other German families who lived there before and during the war. In one case, the man has terrible premonitions of disaster, exacerbated by the recent discovery of a new planet (presumably Pluto which, of course, we now know, is not a planet), which he thinks is a harbinger for catastrophe, while, in the other case, they just manage to escape in time.
As the Germans leave after the war, Polish families are moved in from the East and we also follow how that works, made more complicated by the fact that all the Germans have not yet moved out. Former prisoners-of-war are also some of the people who occupy the houses left by the Germans.
Death hangs over this book. I have already mentioned several instances but there are several other cases of people dying, often in unpleasant ways. R, the narrator’s husband, breaks his nose in a car accident and, as a result, can smell death. We follow the story of Ergo Sum (his real name, his father’s surname was Sum and he wittily christened his son Ergo) who is captured by the Soviets and sent to Siberia, where a group of them survive by eating the remains of those that did not. Leo, the local clairvoyant, writes a book called The End Is Nigh and he is convinced that death and destruction are on the way and even sees the signs. Kümmernis says our world is populated by the sleeping, who have died and are dreaming that they are alive. Our narrator even speculates on how Marta will die.
This novel is full of stories of Nowa Ruda and its inhabitants. I have only touched on a few: from transgender characters to monsters in the pond, from the war to wigs, Tokarczuk gives us a rich panoply of the town, its denizens and its visitors, each story colourful, imaginative and often touched with mystery and mysticism.
First published 1998 by Wydawnictwo “Ruta”
First English translation 2002 by Granta
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones