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Olga Tokarczuk: Prawiek i inne czasy (Primeval and Other Times)

Primeval is the place at the centre of the universe we are told at the beginning of the book. Primeval is a quasi-mythical village in Poland. It exists geographically. We even know where it is, as Tokarczuk describes where it is in relation to actual villages. It is around fifty miles from where Tokarczuk now lives. I have also been close to where it is located. It does not, of course, exist in the real world.

It is guarded, on its four borders by four archangels. It lies on three rivers: The Black and the White and a third, formed by the confluence of he other two, called simply The River.

The story takes place from 1914 up to around 1980. In one sense, it can be described as family saga, in that we follow one family, the Niebieski family and their relatives, over this period, though there is a whole host of other characters. But this is not your standard family saga for the people of Primitive live on two levels, a real one and mythological one. For example, they are protected by angels, they have close, very close, relationships with animals and witness strange phenomena.

The book is divided into chapters called times, each time focussing on one of the characters. We start in 1914, when the Tsar’s men come and take Michal Niebieski away to fight in the war. He was a mill owner and his wife, Genowefa, takes over running the mill till, towards the end of the war, there is no more grain to mill.

During this period we meet other characters. There is Cornspike, a refugee whom Genowefa feeds and who, to earn a living, turns to prostitution. In a way she took the entire village into herself, every pain in the village, and every hope. Not surprisingly, she gets pregnant and has to give birth on her own, a traumatic experience but one that is also recounted on a more mythological than realistic level. She and a wild man, known only as the Bad Man, will live in the forest, her best friend being a snake. She even manages sex with a giant masterwort.

Everyone suffers during the First World War, even the Squire, but even he lives on a different plane. The older Squire Popielski became, the more terrible the world seemed to him.

Michal eventually returns, battered and traumatised, though not before Genowefa has fallen for a young Jewish boy, Eli. Michal adores his daughter, Misia, when she is young but does not like her becoming a young woman. The couple have another child, Izydor, who, like many of the characters in this book is somewhat strange and lives on another plane, not least because Genowefa feels that Cõrnspike has swapped him with a child she gave birth to the same day, called Ruta. Ruta and Izydor are both somewhat different and soon become close.

We follow all these characters and their offspring during the First World War, the post-war period, the Second World War and the Communist period. For many, life follows a fairly predictable path, given the horrors the country faced during Second World War, the Russian occupation and the Communist era.

Tokarczuk spares us none of the unpleasant details: the German occupation and the round-up of the Jews, the final Nazi-Soviet battle, where Primeval becomes the battlefield and the corruption of the Communist era.

This book has been compared, with some justification to Gabriel García Márquez‘s Cien Años de Soledad (One Hundred Years Of Solitude). As with the Colombian novel, much of this book tells of the family and their relatives and the people of their village in a fairly realistic manner. However, it also includes elements which you might describe as fantasy or magic realism.

Some of the characters are certainly not what you would called totally realistic, from Cornspike seeing and having sex with a giant masterwort, to Izydor proving to Ruta (and to us) that there is an invisible border all around Primeval preventing him leaving (despite the obvious fact that other people do leave), from Florentynka, who has a very adversarial relationship with the Moon to the Drowned Man, who was the soul of a peasant called Dipper. In particular, the Squire plays a huge board game,which essentially seems to govern the fate of the world and continues to play it, even while the Communists are seizing his land and properties.

There are also numerous episodes that can best be described as otherworldly, from the souls after the War (The souls were emerging from the bodies confused and stupefied. They flickered like shadows, like transparent balloons) to the monks, called the Reformers of God who existed not to reform the world but to reform God.

Tokarczuk tells a superb story of an extended family during a very difficult period in Poland. She condemns the Germans and Russians, she mocks the Communists for their greed and corruption and she criticises the rampant sexism. Above all, by using elements of fantasy and magic realism, she shows a Poland which is both real and suffering but also a Poland which operates on a somewhat different plane from the real world.

Publishing history

First published 1996 by Wydawnictwo W.A.B.
First English translation 2009 by Twisted Spoon Press
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones