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Olga Tokarczuk: Czysty kraj [Pure Country]

This long story is the first and longest story in a collection called Ostatnie historie [Recent Stories]. As you can see below, it has been translated into seven languages, but not English.

Our heroine is Ida Marzec. She is fifty-four, divorced from Nikolin, a school history teacher, lives in Warsaw and works as a tour guide. Her tour company is called Heart of Europe. Nobody is sure where the heart of Europe is but they do tours in Warsaw, Cracow, Prague, Berlin and Vienna. Her daughter (her only child) Maya writes tour guides and as a result, is always travelling.

Ida is something of a hypochondriac. She is worried about her heart. At times, it seems to race while at others, while she is lying in bed, it seems to stop for a while. She has been to a doctor about this and the doctor told her it could not stop or she would be dead. She has mild tachycardia and it is nothing to worry about. She then went to a private health clinic and had a thorough examination and was told more or less the same thing. She is till not convinced. She will worry about this throughout the story.

She has been visiting her German friend, Ingrid, who lives in Wróclaw. She came by train. However, she has suddenly decided on a whim that she would like to see the small house where she grew up which is south-west of Wróclaw, towards the Czech border. Ingrid has lent her her car to do so. However, the weather is bad – it is winter and snowing – and she has not made as much progress as she would like, so she is looking for somewhere to spend the night. However, she does not see the sign for her turn till the last minute, skids and crashes off the road.

She does not seem to be badly hurt. She has blood in her mouth but thinks that might be because she bit her tongue during the crash. However, the car is not in good shape. She manages to stagger out of the car and to the road. There is nobody around but she can see some buildings in the distance and makes her way to them. There is a large courtyard and a small house which has a light on. She goes to the house and when she explains the situation is welcomed in by Olga and Stefan, the elderly couple who live there.

She is clearly in a state of shock. Olga and Stefan have a spare bed and take her up to the room and tell that their grandson, Adrian, will look in on her the next day. When she wakes up, she feels strange and disorientated. She learns that she has slept most of the day. Adrian, who turns out to be a vet, checks her out and she seems to be fine physically.

Over the next few days, she drifts around in something of a daze, not sure sure what she is doing and what she should be doing. She thinks a lot about her life. All the details and more mentioned above are gradually revealed. She plans to phone for help. For example, she phones the police but there is no reply even on the emergency number. She phones another number and then realises that it is her home number in Warsaw.

However, Tokarczuk has been giving us an aura of death and dying. We first see this in Ida’s journey. She sees what looks like a sleeping dog on a snowdrift but it is clearly dead. She is nearly killed in the accident. She worries about her own death, sure that she will have a heart attack. As a child she was taken to hospital and left by her parents without warning, which really upset her. She even imagined her own funeral – who would come and who would not. She thinks of her tour guide job and her regular visits to museums. Everything in the museum is dead, she says.

When she arrives at Olga and Stefan’s house, she is greeted by a dog, Ina. Ina is dying. She has cancer and finds it difficult to walk. Both Adrian and Olga regularly give her pain-killers. Ida cannot understand why they do not put the dog down. It is only towards the end that she learns that Olga and Stefan, with the help of Adrian, take in dying animals, large (including a horse) and small (including a rat) and look after them till they die. In other words, their place is where living creatures go to die.

This image of death is gradually built up. Death is as banal as life, perhaps more so she comments. Adrian, however, comments dying takes time. We wonder why she does not make a serious effort to phone the police or a garage, to phone Ingrid or Maya (her daughter) and, indeed, she wonders herself about her own hesitation. However, Olga, Stefan and Adrian are genial hosts and she feels that she is, indeed, she seems to be in another world. Her mother and daughter appear to her, so maybe she is in some form of purgatory.

It is another superb story from Tokarczuk. We follow Ida’s intimate thoughts and her worry about her body and her health. But we also see death hanging around, not really threatening but nevertheless there. Ida dips back into the past – her marriage, her parents, her job, her daughter – and more and more seems out of touch with the present. living in her own little world, detached from everyone else, even her hosts. Tokarczuk gets under her skin brilliantly and, at the same time, shows death as something that slowly, very slowly creeps up, whether you are expecting it or not. Sadly this book is not available in English.

Publishing history

First published 2004 by Wydawnictwo Literackie
No English translation
First French translation as Blanche contrée 2007 by Noir Sur Blanc
Translated by Grażyna Erhard
First German translation as Das reine Land 2006 by Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt
Translated by Esther Kinsky
Also published in Bulgarian, Czech, Dutch, Russian, Ukrainian