Olga Tokarczuk became Poland’s first ever writer to win the Man Booker International Prize on Tuesday. She said she is happy that her book has been given a new life on an international scale and that it is attracting attention to Poland’s authors.
She won the prize with the English translation of her novel Flights, which charts multiple journeys in time, space and human anatomy. It was first published in Polish in 2007 and was translated into English last year by Jennifer Croft. (Tokarczuk, left, is pictured with Croft in the main image above.)
The Man Booker International Prize – a counterpart to the Man Booker Prize for English-language novels – is open to books in any language that have been translated into English. The £50,000 (RM265,000) award is split evenly between the writer and translator.
Lisa Appignanesi, chair of the five judges, praised Tokarczuk as a “writer of wonderful wit, imagination and literary panache”.“I think picking up Flights will be an experience for anyone,” Appignanesi said. “It’s a cornucopia of delights, really.”She also said the book was “brilliantly translated”.
“By a series of startling juxtapositions [Tokarczuk] flies us through a galaxy of departures and arrivals, stories and digressions, all the while exploring matters close to the contemporary and human predicament – where only plastic escapes mortality,” Appignanesi said in describing the book.
Tokarczuk’s book was chosen over an Iraq-set horror story and a meditation on the colour white.
Ahmed Saadawi’s novel, Frankenstein In Baghdad, which attracted the greatest media attention before the award, explores the real and imaginary horrors that followed the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Books by two former winners, South Korean writer Han Kang and Hungarian author Laszlo Krasznahorkai, were joined on the shortlist by works from France’s Virginie Despentes and Spain’s Antonio Munoz Molina.
In an interview on Poland’s TVN24 on Wednesday, Tokarczuk said: “I am really lucky that a book I wrote more than 10 years ago is given a new lease on life in a different culture and different language zone, and is still seen as relating to the current times.”
Winning the prize meant that publishers from around the world are getting in touch about her work, she said, adding that she hoped the renewed interest would extend to other Polish writers. “Polish literature can be interesting to the world. I’m happy to be the trailblazer,” she said.
The 56-year-old author is among Poland’s top writers, with a string of bestsellers to her name and a style that mixes the real with the mystical.
Born on Jan 29, 1962, in the western town of Sulechow, she is the author of more than a dozen books. After studying psychology at the University of Warsaw, she worked as a therapist for a few years in the western city of Walbrzych and published a collection of poems before taking a stab at prose.
Following the success of her early books, she turned to writing full-time and settled in the Sudety mountains near the Czech border.
Her books portray a polychromatic world perpetually in motion, with no fixed point, with characters whose biographies and personalities intermingle, and with details drawn from reality, using language that is both precise and poetic.
“I don’t have a clear biography of my own that I could recount in an interesting way. I’m made up of the characters that I pulled out of my head, that I invented,” Tokarczuk says in an interview with the Polish Book Institute. I’m made up of all of them. I have a huge, multi-frame biography.”
Tokarczuk has won numerous prizes and honours, both at home and abroad, including Poland’s most prestigious Nike Literary Award twice. “She’s a mystic in constant search of the truth, a truth that can only be perceived on the move, by transcending borders,” says Kinga Dunin, a friend and fellow writer.
A vegetarian and environmentalist, Tokarczuk is a political activist who does not shy away from criticising Poland’s rightwing Law and Justice (PiS) government. She received death threats in 2015 after telling state media that an open and tolerant Poland was a myth. Her publishers assigned her a security detail for a week.
Tokarczuk’s first novel, The Journey Of The People Of The Book, released in 1993, chronicles a failed expedition to find a mysterious book. Her 2007 release Flights – the book she and her English translator won the Man Booker International Prize for – is a celebration of modern nomadism and human anatomy.
Meanwhile, The Books Of Jacob spans 900 pages, seven borders, three religions and five languages. It traces the little-known history of Frankism, a Jewish messianic sect that sprang up in Poland in the 18th century. Released in 2014, its pages are numbered in reverse in the style of Hebrew books.
It became both an award-winning bestseller and the subject of heavy criticism from nationalist circles in Poland.
Tokarczuk also co-wrote the screenplay for the Polish crime film Spoor, which won the Alfred Bauer Prize for a work of particular innovation at the Berlin film festival in 2017. Spoor was also selected as Poland’s entry for the best foreign language film at the 2018 Oscars.
When not travelling, Tokarczuk divides her time between an apartment in Poland’s western city of Wroclaw and her mountain home. Her books have been turned into plays and films and translated into more than 25 languages, including Catalan, Hindi and Japanese.
The mother of one is a known animal-lover with a keen interest in astrology and psychoanalyst Carl Jung. — Agencies