Presentation Speech by Author, PhD Per Wästberg, Member of the Swedish Academy, Member of the Nobel Committee for Literature, 10 December 2019.
Your Majesties, Your Royal Highnesses, Esteemed Nobel Laureates, Ladies and Gentlemen:
Polish literature shines on Europe – several Nobel prizes, and now a bard of global stature and rare breadth, poetic and humourous. Poland, Europe’s crossroads, perhaps its heart – its history exposes to Olga Tokarczuk a victim ravaged by great powers but with its own history of colonialism and anti-semitism. She does not retreat from unpalatable truth, even under threat of death.
Her fusion of intensive embodiment and ephemeral unreality, intimate observation and mythological obsession, make her one of our time’s most original prose writers, with new ways of viewing reality. She is a virtuoso of instant portraiture, capturing characters in the act of escaping daily life. She writes of what no one else does: “the world’s excruciating strangeness”. Flights is a wonderfully varied description of passage through transit halls and hotels; meetings with figures we know so little of; and a shower of items from dic- tionaries, fairy tales and documents. She circles the poles of nature-culture, reason-madness, male-female, and scoots like a sprinter across socially and culturally fabricated borders.
Her prose – drastic, rich in ideas – is in nomadic movement throughout her fifteen or so books. Her villages are centres of the universe, the place a prota- gonist, its singular destinies woven into a fresco of fable and myth. We live and die in the stories of others, where Katyn for example is at once a forest, at once a massacre.
“My writing is a translation of images to words.” From these images arise apocalyptic histories and mundane episodes, and form her magnum opus, The Books of Jacob, into a picaresque novel and a vibrant panorama of the period around 1752.
It is history-of-ideas and religious history, it is the com- pulsions of the time and metaphysics, superstition and madness. It is salons and prayer meetings and people so alive and up-close that Tokarczuk might just have met them on the street. She lavishes on interiors of country manors, monasteries and Jewish homes, with dresses, gardening, menus. Not least, she turns anonymous women into individuals, giving a voice to menials disappeared without trace.
The sect leader, Jakob Frank, is a charismatic mystic, manipulator and swindler, a rebel provoking God. He questions current order, especially the submission of women. With his adherents, the Frankists, he wants to bring about a new world. This was also the Nazis’ rationale for obliterating Poland. Utopias are siren calls replacing our historical memory. But we never meet the Messiah, only forgers and frauds.
Glimpsed in subtext are Tokarczuk’s Jewish heritage and her hope for a Europe without borders for knowl- edge. In 18th-century Poland she sees parallels with a later era’s Nazism and Stalinism, even with current rightwing populists who – in her words – speak of a country’s past like in a boys’ book about heroes and traitors. But, she says, “there is no history, only people’s lives”.
The Books of Jacob is an extraordinary tale. The great questions of evil, God and the future are stitched together in a prosaic portrayal in which Tokarczuk, using her sensual imagination, ponders a coffee grinder and makes of it a time-grinder, reality’s own axis. Generations to come will return to Olga Tokarczuk’s thousand-paged miracle to discover a richness we barely discern today. I see Alfred Nobel nodding in friendly approval from his heaven.
Ms Tokarczuk, the Swedish Academy congratulates you. Please receive your Nobel Prize from the hand of His Majesty the King.
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