Olga Tokarczuk and Polish Literature’s Home Army

Poland has been using art to revitalize—or reform—its postwar image.

“I and motherland are one. My name is Million, because for millions do I love and suffer agonies.” Adam Mickiewicz’s words from his dramatic cycle Dziady (Forefathers’ Eve) are indicative of Poland’s long tradition of voicing resistance and examining its national identity through literature. Last month, acclaimed Polish writer and past Asymptote contributor Olga Tokarczuk won the 2018 Nobel Prize in Literature, and yet has also outraged many conservatives in her own country. In this essay, Cynthia Gralla takes us through the history of resistance in Polish literature in the twentieth century, before examining Tokarczuk’s own challenge, defiance, and her place in such a history.

The past hundred years in Polish literature have been, by one reading, a history of resistance through weaponized words.

Poland has made resistance an art. Born into a Polish-American family, I have heard tales of my relatives’ wartime resistance work since childhood. Between 2012 and 2014, I lived in Lublin, Poland, conducting research into their activities during Nazi occupation with the help of a Fulbright grant. My relatives served as ski couriers in what eventually became known, in 1942, as the Armia Krajowa—literally “the Home Army.” Before that, it was called Związek Walki Zbrojnej, or “the Union of Armed Struggle”, and the Służba Zwycięstwu Polski, or “Polish Victory Service”. The name mattered little; all were incarnations of the Polish Resistance, the heart of a national body so conditioned by the vicissitudes of history and occupation that it began beating again as soon as Germany invaded. It also beat steadily throughout the nineteenth-century partitioning of Poland by Russia, Prussia, and Austria, in the classrooms of that century’s “flying university” (which educated luminaries like Marie Salomea Skłodowska, also known as Marie Curie, when teaching youth in Polish was forbidden,) and during the parched years of Communism.

But over the past century, Poland has also made its greatest art by grappling with the trauma caused by the constant need for resistance to oppression. Since the start of the twentieth century, its writers have threshed national pain in the pages of transgressive, surreal, tortuous texts. Poland’s first Nobel laureate, Henryk Sienkiewicz, won the prize for a trilogy of patriotic novels, but then things quickly became stranger. The brief glories of the Second Polish Republic (1918-1939) birthed an eclectic avant-garde scene. One of its brightest lights was Witkacy (the pen name for Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz), a much-hyphenated artist who witnessed the Russian Revolution firsthand and distorted the contours of various media, including novels, drama, painting, and photography, to process a country and era in flux. He befriended Bruno Schulz, the Polish-Jewish writer with perhaps the largest international reputation outside of the nation’s Nobel Prize recipients. In Schulz’s stories, everyday life vacillates between dream and nightmare, his unusual word choices adding to the tactility of his stories, each one like a layered brushstroke in his fabled murals. Since his murder during the Holocaust, Schulz has become a symbol of what is lost when a dictatorship relegates humans to the status of animals, as he himself did to magnificent effect in his fiction.

Witold Gombrowicz published his absurdist novel Ferdydurke two years before the Nazi invasion, but his diary, written in exile in Argentina after the war, has come to be seen by many as his true masterpiece. In it, he ferociously questions and often excoriates Polish identity, politics, and literature with the wounded eyes of one excluded from his homeland by a joke of history (in August 1939, a few days before Hitler invaded his country, he made a last-minute decision to disembark from a boat in Buenos Aires meant to return him to Poland after what was intended to be a brief visit). Another Polish novelist in exile, Isaac Bashevis Singer, won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1978 for his unabashed, full-bodied portraits of Polish-Jewish life; unlike the other authors discussed here, he wrote in Yiddish.

Schulz, Gombrowicz, and Singer were all prose masters, but after the war, Poland once again became the province of poets. About fifteen years ago, I asked a friend who teaches and writes on Polish literature about its best prose works since World War II. She answered that Polish prose had been given short shrift in the postwar period in favor of its more renowned poets,  including Tadeusz Różewicz and Zbigniew Herbert (both of whom served in the Home Army as teenagers), Adam Zagajewski, and Nobel laureate Wisława Szymborska. This ascendance of poetry can be seen as an extension of the tradition, dating back to the nineteenth century, of Polish poets like Adam Mickiewicz being entrusted with speaking for their people. (It is also the mirror image of the predominance of prose in postwar Japanese literature. It’s always struck me as curious that the two nations to have most furiously tested the limits of the terms “atrocity” and “victimhood” during World War II should have responded to the crisis with broken lines in one case and whole paragraphs in the other.) My friend did suggest that I check out the one Polish prose author she admired: Olga Tokarczuk.

Poland has been using art to revitalize—or reform—its postwar image. For instance, when I lived in Lublin, a university town near the Ukrainian and Belarusian borders, the town was vying to represent Poland as the European Capital of Culture for 2016. It didn’t end up being awarded the title, but the city did apportion funds to a host of local visual and performance arts endeavors, including a large, newly-opened complex of theaters and classrooms on the edge of the Old Town, next door to the apartment my husband and I were renting. There, I attended numerous performances, including a dance-theater piece based on Japan’s Takarazuka Revue, the all-female, cross-dressing musical troupe. But I also spent time conducting research at Majdanek, the former concentration camp and current museum and memorial that is so close to the town center locals have been known to complain that its precincts can be glimpsed from luxury high-rises. Given the tension between Lublin’s glittering cultural aspirations and its bloody past, it’s up for debate whether this revitalization through art is a true step forward or another way of papering over a painful history. Perhaps its artistic programs are similar, in terms of cloaking the many ghosts, to the 2018 Amendment to the Act on the Institute of National Remembrance, which stipulated that anyone who uttered the phrase “Polish death camps” or otherwise suggested Poles had been complicit with Nazi war crimes could be hit with a fine and prison sentence.

Even if it can be considered progress, art has its limitations as resistance. And in Poland’s current political climate, in which the Law and Justice Party is attacking LGBTQ+ rights and freedom of the press, resistance is needed. Yet I believe that the leading Polish authors of the past century constitute a Home Army no less critical than that of the resistance fighters who have risen up again and again in Polish cities and villages whenever foreign powers seized control. And with Tokarczuk’s newly anointed status as a Polish author of international repute—one who is, nevertheless, viewed as a traitor to Poland by many conservatives in her homeland—the medium of disruption has swung from poetry back to prose.

In the case of Tokarczuk, much of her resistance lies in the formal qualities of her work. In her book Flights, which hybridized various literary genres and won the 2018 Man Booker International Prize, history becomes miscellany, and vice versa. Nothing is unimportant in her telling, be it the heart of Chopin—Poland’s patron saint if there ever was one—or the desecration of the body of a former African slave in Emperor Francis I’s cabinet of curiosities. In her books, history is cross-referenced and doubled back upon. She refuses reification in order to let everyone in.

The Nobel committee commended Tokarczuk for “a narrative imagination that with encyclopedic passion represents the crossing of boundaries as a form of life,” qualities on display not only in Flights. In Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, which was just published in English and also draws upon multiple genres, the female narrator remarks, “I love crossing borders.” An astrologer and translator of William Blake, the narrator questions the boundaries of humanity both in her reverence for animals and her naming practices; humans are christened with monikers like “Dizzy” and “Big Foot” while she refers to deer—she treats animal names, such as Deer and Dog, like proper nouns—as “Young Ladies.” Pondering the motions of the stars, she reflects on her position beneath them, at the crossroads of southwest Poland and the Czech Republic. After quoting Blake, she follows the evening star’s passage through the sky: “Over there is the Czech Republic . . . Oh yes, Venus goes to bed in the Czech Republic.” Stars are the ultimate boundary crossers; we could learn much, Tokarczuk suggests, from their ecliptic.

Near the end of the book, Tokarczuk returns to this theme of Venus in another country, and the narrator cheekily asks, as she eyes the star’s movement, “What is there to be afraid of in the Czech Republic?” Indeed, cheekiness enlivens much of her work. Many critics have commented on the subversion and sense of play intrinsic to Tokarczuk’s books, but these can be found in many of the Polish authors referenced above. Those attributes are also shared by mystical writers like William Blake, who served as a touchstone not only for Tokarczuk but also for her fellow Nobel laureate, Czesław Miłosz. Mysticism, after all, is all about subversion and joy; it is a state in which the divine plays within a human being, holiness as a ludic indwelling. Even as mystics fly through dark nights—and cross borders—they remain inhabited, rooted by a peculiar devotion, like Tokarczuk’s characters often do.

Tokarczuk’s playfulness and mobility are tied to her celebration of agency. Critic James Wood noted that Flights did not mention the darker side of mobility, which is forced migration, but that may be because the author chooses to accentuate agency and even, as unfashionable as it may sound, positivity. She has passionately argued for the foregrounding of accomplishments and ideas over the fetishization of death and sacrifice. In a 2010 New York Times op-ed following the death of President Lech Kaczynski, whose plane crashed into the buried bodies at Katyn, she condemned her country’s culture of victimhood: “I am sick of building our common identity around funeral marches and failed uprisings. I dream of Poland becoming a modern society that is defined not by the crippling nature of history, but by our individual achievements, a sense of our own self-worth and ideas for the future.” Tokarczuk’s concern over the positioning of Kaczynski’s death was prophetic. His brother, Jarosław Kaczyński, the current head of the Law and Justice Party, constructed a mythology around it that the party has used to consolidate power, including in Poland’s election earlier this month.

Meanwhile, in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Czesław Miłosz observed, “It is possible that there is no other memory than the memory of wounds.” It was reasonable that he said that in 1980. It would be reasonable now too, but I doubt we’ll hear a similar sentiment in Tokarczuk’s December speech.

Miłosz wrote on another occasion, “If something exists in one place, it will exist everywhere.” That statement reckons with the creeping darkness of totalitarianism, but it also reminds us that every writer threads the universal through the personal’s eye. Polish authors like Miłosz and Tokarczuk prove a related truth: though something may exist everywhere, it will exist in each land in a particular way, troubled by the outlines of place as much as the currents of time. Tokarczuk limned both dimensions in Primeval and Other Times, her magic realist novel about a Polish village in the twentieth century. In it, angels guard the town’s borders and characters ask each other questions like “What is the goal of time?” For his part, Miłosz admitted in his Nobel acceptance speech, “I wouldn’t know how to speak about poetry in general. I must speak of poetry in its encounter with peculiar circumstances of time and place.”

Even within her books, which defy boundaries both thematically and formally, Tokarczuk, too, remains a Polish author, but one who has harshly criticized both its long history of anti-Semitism and its government’s recent shift to the far right. In fact, one of the unfortunate consequences of announcing the 2018/2019 Nobel Prizes in Literature together has been that Tokarczuk and the 2019 recipient, Austrian Peter Handke, have been conflated, through reductive identity politics, in a few angry articles published immediately after the announcement. Yes, they’re both white Europeans, but politically and ethically, they could hardly be more different.

Will Poland keep resisting, in the face of the Law and Justice Party and other horrors? It is likely, and likely too that the forms of resistance will continue to cycle through different genres: poetry, prose, hybrid texts, performance, films, social media, public protests, and others that we can’t yet predict. But one thing’s for sure: Poland has a new (inter)national hero, on and off the page. For a woman who rejected the veneration of Polish victimhood, Tokarczuk has become, with her Nobel Prize win, the ultimate victor as a writer, and the de facto leader of her Home Army of literary resistance fighters.

Cynthia Gralla is the author of The Floating World and The Demimonde in Japanese Literature. She has contributed work to Salon, Electric Literature, The Mississippi Review, and other publications. She teaches in the Department of English at the University of Victoria and is currently writing a historical novel about the Polish Resistance.