Primeval and Other Times

Primeval and Other Times by Olga Tokarczuk




This amazed me, one of those books that enlarged my idea of what fiction could be and what it could do.

I read most of it in a single night because I could not stop, even as I knew I should read more slowly to better understand and appreciate the spell the author is casting here. Stayed up too late reading and then could not fall asleep because my mind was so inflamed thinking about scenes and people from the book. As a reader I was just blown away; as a writer I kept going, how did she DO that?

Primeval reminded me in some ways of 100 Years of Solitude, if that book had been set in Poland and covered only about 80 years of recognizable history and had actual scenes instead of narrative summary. The sense of sweep, the magical realism, the godlike view and the way that one small place is used as a microcosm for the world were all familiar. It’s the 20th century in Poland, so lots of specifically bad things happen, along with the usual tragedies of unrequited love, growing older and dying. Yet somehow the book is not horribly sad, even though I felt for the characters and worried about what would happen to them. I think it is because of the godlike perspective — compassionate yet distanced — that the narrator maintains throughout. Although “godlike” is a somewhat charged term here, because God, too, comes under narrative scrutiny, and doesn’t fare all that well.

Being married to a Polish immigrant has made me more familiar with Poland’s history and culture than would otherwise be the case, and it’s possible this novel speaks more clearly to me because of that. Much here that is never spelled out because its original readers would have known without being told: how this part of Poland would have been in Russia before the first world war, occupied first by Germans and subsequently by Russians during the second, how the wealthier people of the story, like the Squire, would have lost all their property in the Communist era, and the casual corruption of that era. Vodka, mushroom-picking. The murder of the local Jews is efficiently disposed of in a few horrifying pages that is neither sensationalized nor sentimental. And like everything else that happens, is not belabored or over-explained or dwelt on. It just happens. Yet somehow it all feels very real and gripping and personal.



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