May 24, 2018
Olga Tokarczuk wins this year’s Man Booker International Prize
by Michael Barron
Tuesday night, the much-anticipated announcement of this year’s Man Booker International Prize winner was made at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. The winner? Polish novelist Olga Tokarczuk, for her novel Flights, translated with dazzling finesse by Jennifer Croft (who will share the £50,000 purse) and published by the celebrated British indie Fitzcarraldo Editions.
According to Alison Flood, who covered the announcement for the Guardian, chair of judges Lisa Appignanesi said, “We loved the voice of the narrative — it’s one that moves from wit and gleeful mischief to real emotional texture and has the ability to create character very quickly, with interesting digression and speculation.” Appignanesi went on cite Tokarczuk’s own description of her work as “constellation novels” — a apt description of her style. Besides Appignanensi, the judges were poet and translator Michael Hofmann, novelists Hari Kunzru and Helen Oyeyemi, and Telegraph book critic Tim Martin.
Calling Flights a novel might be short-changing it; the book is sui generis. Tokarczuk burrows to create a warren of meditations, allowing the narrative to wander nomadically from thoughts on the human body in relation to the outside world (that’s body as nomad, as tourist, as part of an entourage) to rich histories of limb-embalming and spice-trading. Her prose style draws from the vignette and the koan alike, allowing autonomous stories and monologues to bubble up—some appearing only for a single paragraph, others carrying on for dozens of pages—to create a portrait of a subconscious in flight.
Prior to her literary career, Tokarczuk trained as a Jungian psychologist, a background that emerges again and again in Flights. Since she debuted in 1993 with the novel The Journey of the Book-People, her bibliography has grown at a steady pace. Flights, published in Poland in 2007, was her twelfth novel. Her fifteenth and most recent is The Books of Jacob, published in 2014. Tokarczuk has twice won Poland’s most prestigious literary Prize, the Nike, and has had her work adapted for the big screen. As an outspoken peacenik both on and off the page, Tokarczuk was award the International Bridge Prize, an award co-presented by the cities of Zgorzelec, Poland and Görlitz, Germany (formerly a single polity, and still connected by a bridge spanning the Lusatian Neisse river) that honors those who work to improve understanding between cultures and peoples.
Despite being celebrated as one of Poland’s greatest and most successful living writers, Tokarczuk has largely had a low profile in the English-speaking world. Her first book to appear in English translation was House of Day, House of Night, a novel narrated by the many inhabitants of a small town that was published by Northwestern University Press in 2003. Primeval and Other Times, published in 2010 by Twisted Spoon Press, follows the stories of four guardian angels and the people they watch over. Some readers undoubtedly discovered Tokarczuk’s work by encountering “The Ugliest Woman in the World,” a short story included in The Best European Fiction 2011, edited by Colum McCann and published by Dalkey Archive. All of these were translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, whose translation of Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead is due out from Fitzcarraldo this September.
Along with her popularity, Tokarczuk has also courted controversy. A member of Poland’s Green Party and bona fide leftie, she drew the ire of the Polish right with the adaptation of Drive Your Plow, which one conservative outlet, Flood writes, called “a deeply anti-Christian [work] that promoted eco-terrorism.” Flood also writes that Tokarczuk’s publisher was forced to hire bodyguards after she spoke in a 2014 TV interview about Poland’s “horrendous” colonial past. “I was very naive,” she later told Claire Armistead in an interview for the Guardian. “I thought we’d be able to discuss the dark areas in our history.”
With a Man Booker under Tokarczuk’s belt, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead can expect a warm reception from English readers. It will shortly follow the American release of Flights this August from Riverhead. You can read an excerpt of Flights at Fitzcarraldo’s website here.
Michael Barron is an editor at Melville House.