Tag Archives: Olga Tokarczuk

Building Bridges interview series: Nicci Praça

Nicci Praça has had a long and successful career in publishing: she was Head of Publicity for Quercus, where she launched MacLehose Press and did the PR for Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy. Then she moved to freelance work for independent publishing houses, starting with And Other Stories and then helping to launch Fitzcarraldo Editions, where she stayed until the beginning of 2019. During that time she also worked with a number of other independent publishers, including Les Fugitives, Influx Press and Istros Books, as well as helping to establish the Art of Translation events series at the Caravanserail bookshop and promoting the Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses.

Nicci currently balances her freelance PR work with managing the new Amnesty International Book Shop in Kentish Town.

Throughout your career in publishing, have you perceived an increase in the number of translated works that are making their way into English?

Yes. When I first started in 2001 I was working in commercial fiction for a commercial publishing house, and we didn’t publish much translation. Five years later I moved to Quercus, which was then a very young independent publishing house; they had just won The Costa Book Award, and shortly after that Christopher MacLehose was brought in to publish mainly literature in translation. Up until that point, my contact with literature in translation hadn’t been significant; all the books I had read had been classics that had been translated a long time ago. I started working with translated literature in the crime genre, and I found that although publicizing literature in translation to literary editors was quite difficult, publicizing literature in translation to crime reviewers was easy; they were very open to looking at what was happening in other cultures and in other countries. Their openness really helped: by the time Christopher (MacLehose) published The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, which I worked on, the crime community had already accepted Henning Mankell (author of the Wallander mysteries) and Peter Høeg (author of Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow), so when I pitched Stieg Larsson to them they were very open to the idea. But when I pitched Stieg Larsson to the literary editors, I had to turn it into a news story that they would be interested in. By the time the paperback came out, everybody wanted to read it. And a lot of that excitement had come from the initial response from the crime community that had reviewed the hardback and been enthused by it. After working on that trilogy I noticed a distinct rise in the interest in literature in translation from literary editors. And since then I’ve found literary editors more open to discovering new voices from different countries and different languages.

Within the headline figure, the much-quoted 3.5% that represents the proportion of literature in English that is in translation, do you see anything changing?

I do. I see translated literature growing, particularly if our borders shrink, but especially because younger generations, from the millennials down, are keen to find out about what’s going on around the world. The Internet has helped with that, and people’s tastes seem to be broader, which is great. I think that there will be more of a hunger for literature in translation; it’s going to keep growing. People aren’t necessarily finding out about literature in translation through the national media, but they are discovering literature in translation through Instagram, blogs, Booktube, Twitter, and particularly from online literary journals like Asymptote, Guernica, Words Without Borders and so on.

How do the publishing houses that you work with identify translated works for commission?

It works in various ways. They’re approached by agents in some cases, and by translators in others; for example, both Antonia Lloyd-Jones and Jennifer Croft have been great champions of Olga Tokarczuk. And when they’re really passionate about somebody they don’t stop, so that’s probably the strongest avenue where publishers find literature in translation. They also find new books from the authors they’ve published in translation, by having conversations with them about what they’re reading and what they recommend.

You mentioned Olga Tokarczuk; could we talk about Flights, translated by Jennifer Croft, and the journey from pitch to publication and then ultimately prize-winner? [note: this interview took place before Tokarczuk was awarded the delayed 2018 Nobel Prize in Literature]. 

Jennifer Croft approached Jacques Testard at Fitzcarraldo Editions and spoke to him about Flights; she’d been translating it and felt very passionately about it. Granta had published Tokarczuk’s House of Day, House of Night (translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones); it had got coverage in the UK, and there was also a chance that Olga might be shortlisted for the Nobel Prize for Literature. These things make a difference when a publisher is trying to decide whether to publish an author. By the time I came to Fitzcarraldo Editions, Flights had already been purchased and was going to be published in May 2017. Poland was the guest of honour at London Book Fair that year, so Olga had been invited as part of that initiative in April 2017. The London Book Fair managed to get her interviews and meetings with Claire Armistead at The Guardian, who has been a great champion of Olga. Olga also met Rosie Goldsmith, Joanna Walsh, Katherine Taylor; these people are important influencers, not only in publishing but also in literature in translation. She also had a very well-respected translator, Antonia Lloyd-Jones, championing her work and offering to interpret for her at events. So by the time she came back to launch Flights she already had a groundswell of support. Then early in 2018 she was longlisted and then shortlisted for the Man Booker International prize, and they have quite a heavy publicity schedule; all of the publicity that had happened from the previous year through to April 2018 was already quite significant by the time she was shortlisted for the MBI. Then she won, and that just catapulted her to a completely different level, one which is quite rare for a writer from another country whose books are published in translation.

There has been a beginning of a move away from Eurocentrism in translated literature. How do you perceive that shift, and do you think it might change with the current political climate?

These shifts happen all the time; marginalised languages become very fashionable during specific periods. For example, two years ago Korean literature really exploded on the publishing scene: it was helped by the publication of Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, translated by Deborah Smith, but also Korea had been a London Book Fair guest of honour. So there are patterns where a certain country is the guest of honour and UK publishers are exposed to publishers within those countries and to translators promoting literature from that country. The challenge is to keep these languages at the forefront and continue to publish them.

Do you perceive there being any challenges regarding gender bias in translated literature? And if so, what do you think might be done to overcome them?

It’s an odd situation because a lot of the translators are women, but the books we’re publishing aren’t necessarily by women writers. The percentages are still very low, which makes small independent publishers who publish women in translation activist publishers. They’re the ones who see that there is a gap in the market which needs to be filled.  I think that’s why I prefer independent publishing, because a lot of it is driven by gaps in markets and people’s passion to fill those gaps.

You’ve worked with a number of publishers who have different approaches to translated literature; what activities do they undertake to promote translation and help those works to reach publication?

Obviously publicity around those books and those authors is very important, and every publisher will undertake to make sure that a book gets the right kind of publicity or as much publicity as possible. But the ones who are actively working hard on this are the translators: they do the bulk of the work, talking about writers and pitching them as much as possible to get them in print. A good publisher will take an author and nurture them and continue to publish their work, which is very important, but funding is also very important: if publishers don’t have the funding to pay for a translation a book might not necessarily get published. They work hard at getting the funding for these books, and then submitting them for prizes where possible, but what they can do is fairly limited. The media has more work to do: they have more opportunities, but they are reluctant. Getting a foreign author on the BBC is really difficult. Even if the author has an incredible reputation overseas, it’s still really hard. Part of that is because of language: if they don’t speak English “properly”, there is a reluctance to put them on air, and so writers have to be so extraordinary before someone in the national media will even begin to take a look at them.

That sounds quite stagnant; Christopher MacLehose wrote an article over ten years saying much the same thing: that authors are heavily involved in promoting their own work, and that translators take on a lot of the publicity work. So why do you think it isn’t changing?

Gatekeeping. Gatekeeping is one of my biggest bugbears. It makes things so difficult, because if you’re not getting the publicity for a book, how do you get the word out there? Most sales teams don’t consider online publications to be strong enough mouthpieces to sell books, but as a publicist I disagree with that. I think that online publications are much stronger than radio and newspapers, particularly now, because I’m not sure how many people really trust what’s coming out of certain media platforms. And that’s where the Internet has really helped us, because we can circumvent the national media to get word out there. The Internet has also really helped independent publishers: if they had no platform to inform people of the books that they’re publishing, nobody would know about them and no-one would buy them because it’s also really hard to get books into bookshops. You’ve got another set of gatekeepers there and they only really get on board when they see everybody else getting on board. So the internet is crucial to the publishing industry, certainly in terms of literature in translation.

Building Bridges interview series: Antonia Lloyd-Jones

Antonia Lloyd-Jones is a prizewinning translator from Polish, and recipient of the Transatlantyk award for the most outstanding promoter of Polish literature abroad (awarded in 2018). She is a long-term translator of Nobel Prize in Literature laureate Olga Tokarczuk, and her translation of Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2018) is currently shortlisted for the Warwick Prize for Women in Translation. Other recent published translations include Żanna Słoniowska’s The House with the Stained Glass Window (Maclehose Press, 2018), and Mrs Mohr Goes Missing by Maryla Szymiczkowa (pseudonym of authorial duo Jacek Dehnel and Piotr Tarczynski, Oneworld Books, 2019). She also works as a mentor for emerging translators, and has served as co-chair of the Translators Association.

You are a prolific translator from Polish, and ambassador for Polish literature. How do you go about finding new works to translate?

I translate mostly contemporary literature, so I try to keep up with new works released in Poland. I read certain journals, I listen to radio interview programmes, I go to literary festivals in Poland, and I’m in touch with a lot of publishers and authors. I try to select things that will sell, and to think from a publisher’s point of view. Of course quality is their top priority, but they also have to consider who will read a book, who will buy it, and so if I want to persuade a publisher to take on a book that they can’t read themselves, I’ve got to think in those terms.

What is the balance between pitches and commissions, and how do you choose publishers to pitch your translations to?

Commissions are rare, because Polish gets consigned to a ghetto of “minority languages” (a phrase I dislike); it’s seen as difficult, remote, and not quite part of “our” Europe. So inevitably the translator who has dedicated him or herself to learning this particular language has to act as an agent if he or she wants a book to come out in English. This is partly because Polish literature doesn’t have a strong agenting system as some literatures do; mostly it’s foreign rights representatives at publishing houses who are selling rights, and sometimes authors themselves. I prepare material for my pitches very carefully; I put together a book report, information about the author, and an assessment of who is going to read this and why I think it should be published, to persuade the publishers that it is worth considering. I include a 20-page sample translation, and choose the target publisher by researching what they’re doing. I pitch carefully, even to individual editors, because they have individual tastes. Inevitably I’m geared towards the small independents because they’re the ones who are geared towards publishing translated literature.

One of your recent translations (Olga Tokarczuk, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead) was shortlisted for the Man Booker International prize. How has being part of this major prize helped to promote your work as a translator, and do you feel that the importance of translators is represented in media coverage of the prize?

This particular prize is focussed on equality for the translator and the author, and so the organisers put a magnificent amount of work into promoting the translator as well as the author. That’s very unusual, and they’ve done a great job; they’ve given us a chance to speak, and included us in press coverage very well. This is what ought to be happening, because there’s a big issue about translators’ visibility. Of course you want to see your name on the reviews; I think of myself not as a co-author of the book but as co-author of the translation. I don’t mind not being on the cover, but my name should be on the title page and it should be mentioned in press coverage. You take a responsibility in translation, seeing what the author has done and then reflecting that, and so you should take some of the credit too. One reason why the translator’s name should be visible is that we’re still having to change the imbalance in attitude towards books that are published in English and books published in translation. People have a kind of allergy to things foreign. And look what’s happening to our world: there are all sorts of barriers going up, but I feel I’m a barrier remover, I want people to feel they can read anything from everywhere, and not have a mindset that says ‘Oh, that’s foreign, so it’s not for me’ or ‘That’s translated, so it can’t be any good.’ Unfortunately that attitude does exist, a lot of people think like that without even being aware of it. So the more you normalise translated literature by having the translator’s name mentioned alongside the author’s, the more it simply becomes an accepted part of literature. And that should be the normal state of affairs. I feel that if we understand another culture, if we read its books, watch its films and so on, then we find out that we’re all very much the same. And to me that’s important, it’s something we need in today’s world. It does feel like chipping away at a mountain with a teaspoon when you see what’s happening politically, but that’s what I feel my life is about.

What do you perceive as the greatest challenges regarding gender bias in translated literature, and how does this affect who gets published and who gets translated?

I imagine that it’s partly to do with the balance of publishing in the original language, and that’s where the bias is. It may not necessarily be to do with what translators are picking or what publishers are picking; it may have a lot to do with the balance of publishing in other countries. Publishing as a profession doesn’t have a significant gender imbalance, which is also relevant because it’s part of a chain, but there is bias against women in all sorts of ways culturally. This is certainly the case in Poland, where there’s retrogression because of a very conservative, very traditional and church-influenced government that has set things back for women. So they’re contending with some unhelpful and very traditional attitudes. But within literature there are a lot of women being published, and across a very wide range of writing.

What do you think might usefully be done to respond to and overcome such biases?

There have been some excellent initiatives. I admire Meytal Radzinski and Katy Derbyshire, who have put a lot of work into investigating the relevant statistics. It shouldn’t be necessary to engage in positive discrimination, but there are cases where it is necessary: it makes people – especially those who have unconscious biases – think about it. So the Warwick Prize for Women in Translation, and initiatives such as And Other Stories having a Year of Publishing Women – all of these things wake people up. And even people like me need to be woken up, and focus on seeking out good books by women to translate. My pitching of Żanna Słoniowska’s The House with the Stained Glass Window to Maclehose was part of that waking up: it was good to get another woman writer out there, but I didn’t set out consciously to find a female author. I was looking, I found that book, and it has been successful, but we could all make more conscious choices.

You are involved in a number of networks and mentoring programmes; to what extent would you consider their work as activist?

Ultimately our work is about getting people to know each other and to understand each other’s cultures, and in doing so to make the world a better and more interesting place. When I started out thirty years ago translators were much less visible, so I’m very happy that I’ve been able to be part of a shift in that respect. I made this my full-time career twenty years ago, and I found that there were some amazing people I could join forces with. I think it’s very important that as translators we understand our rights, that we are an empowered community, because we all have the same ultimate goal. It’s important for us to share advice, and to help each other with the practicalities of being a professional literary translator. Danny (Hahn) always defines it very well: he says that translation is a different thing from being a translator. Being a translator means being an active part of that community, and helping emerging translators. It’s a constant learning process, but I think it’s very important that those of us who have some experience can pass on our knowledge to younger translators.

You work tirelessly to promote Polish literature and culture. Do you think that Polish women writers are well represented in translated literature, or that there is an increased openness towards Polish literature? What or who would you like to see gain greater recognition?

We had a boost with the London Book Fair having Poland as the guest country in 2017, and then Olga (Tokarczuk) won the Man Booker International prize in 2018 [note: since the time of this interview, Tokarczuk also received the delayed 2018 Nobel Prize in Literature], so we had a bit of a crest of a wave. I’m slightly nervous that the wave might be coming down again now, but having Poland as the guest country at London Book Fair was great because publishers came to look at what Polish literature had to offer and it did wake people up. That took years to be put in place, with a dedicated team of people putting a great deal of effort into it. And the British Council has also done an amazing job for us. There are not very many contemporary Polish women writers being translated; there are quite a lot of female poets who have been translated, but there is still a lot to do. There is not nearly enough, and some of those who have been translated should be much better known. Children’s and Young Adult books should be translated too: Danny (Hahn) has been a pioneer in this respect, but there’s a wealth of undiscovered works. Children should be growing up seeing how big the world is.

You may also be interested in the following posts:

Review of Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead

The Nobel Prize in Literature: Be More Olga

Changing the status quo: the 2019 Man Booker International prize

Tonight the winner of the 2019 Man Booker International prize will be announced, and it’s something of a landmark year for women in translation. I want to talk about how 2018’s Year of Publishing Women, though it seemed to have a relatively small reach at the time, has had a significant impact on this prize: it’s possible that we’re witnessing a coincidence on a grand scale, but perhaps the fact that the shortlist features a higher proportion of women than is usual for literary prizes is a direct consequence of the Year of Publishing Women – partly owing to what was published last year, but also because of an increased awareness of the importance of striving for greater balance. The gender ratio on this year’s shortlist has made headlines everywhere, but even in neutral reports an unconscious bias is evident; in The Guardian it was described as being “dominated” by women, a phrasing quite rightly questioned by women in translation advocate Meytal Radzinski. Her point was that no shortlist with the opposite ratio would be described as being “dominated” by men – that would just be normal, right?

Image from themanbookerprize.com

Right. Except it’s so wrong that this attitude of male “domination” being normal is still prevalent. I’ve encountered several people in the past year who have said they’re unsure about whether there should be such a thing as a year of publishing only women, and so I’m just going to nail my colours to the mast and say that at this point in history YES, THERE SHOULD: women are disadvantaged at every stage of the publishing process, and this is compounded in translated literature as women face a double marginalisation. By not challenging this, we allow it to continue. Saying that we’re not gender-biased but still having catalogues or bookshelves that are heavily weighted towards male authors is, I think, quite dangerous: there may not be conscious bias, but the bias that exists at all the stages a book goes through on its journey to translation, publication and reception is allowed to continue – is even normalised – if we ignore it by believing that not being deliberately biased against women in translation is enough to tilt the balance.

So the Year of Publishing Women was brave and necessary, and opened a dialogue about the books that get published and those that don’t. In an interview last year, publicist Nicky Smalley told me that And Other Stories (the only publishing house to commit fully to the Year of Publishing Women) had to actively seek out books by women writers to fill the 2018 catalogue; one of those books, Alia Trabucco Zerán’s debut novel The Remainder, is now on the Man Booker International shortlist. The Remainder is a spirited dual narrative in which three young people shackled to the historical memory of the Chilean dictatorship drive a hearse through the mountains from Chile to Argentina in search of a corpse lost in transit, and was beautifully translated by Sophie Hughes for And Other Stories. Its well-deserved place on the shortlist represents activism at its best, and it is not the only success of the Year of Publishing Women: the more women are published, the more they will be discussed, reviewed and entered for prizes, and the more these lists might see a more lasting shift where people are no longer surprised to see the scales tipped towards a preponderance of women writers. Where this is no longer “unprecedented”, no longer a surprising “domination”, but something perfectly normal – just as it will continue be perfectly normal for the ratio to favour men on other occasions. Neither scenario should be surprising, and yet one of them is.

The 2019 Man Booker International shortlist also smashes tired stereotypes of what women write about: women’s writing is too often pigeonholed as “romance”, “chick lit” or “women’s fiction”, and it is assumed and accepted that women write for women (an attitude brilliantly challenged by Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett) – these kinds of facile assumptions are exactly what perpetuate the invisible bias that women writers have to confront every time they sit down to write. And yet the women-authored books on the Man Booker International shortlist are extremely diverse: as well as Trabucco Zerán’s debut novel, there is the second English-language publication of last year’s winner, Olga Tokarczuk: the magnificent Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead is a witty and poignant pseudo-noir murder mystery flawlessly translated by Antonia Lloyd Jones for Fitzcarraldo Editions. The difference in genre and voice from Flights (Tokarczuk’s 2018 prizewinner, translated by Jennifer Croft for Fitzcarraldo Editions), along with the sheer scope of her work, shows that we cannot pigeonhole Tokarczuk (and, with her, Polish literature or women’s writing). And the excellent, ambitious books are not limited to The Remainder and Drive Your Plow (though they are my two unequivocal favourites on the shortlist): in Celestial Bodies Jokha Alharthi tells the history of Oman through the women of one fictional family, translated by Marilyn Booth for Sandstone Press; Annie Ernaux’s The Years is a “collective autobiography” of twentieth-century French cultural history, translated by Alison L. Strayer for Fitzcarraldo Editions, and Marion Poschmann’s The Pine Islands, an excoriating account of one man’s self-indulgent journey of enlightenment, finds new audiences in Jen Calleja’s sardonic translation for Serpent’s Tail.

Women represent half of history, half of the world, half of life – let them fill half your bookshelf, and then we won’t need a Year of Publishing Women or see women’s success framed in terms of anomalous “domination”. I’ve mentioned the scales tipping, the balance shifting, the ratios changing: the theme for International Women’s Day this year was “Balance for Better”, and I believe that the Year of Publishing Women has done exactly that. Shamsie noted that the real point of interest would be what happened in 2019:

“Will we revert to the status quo or will a year of a radically transformed publishing landscape change our expectations of what is normal and our preconceptions of what is unchangeable?”

2018 may not quite have been the “radically transformed publishing landscape” that Shamsie had hoped for, but the Year of Publishing Women did shake up expectations, complacencies, and resignation about the “unchangeability” of gender bias. The 2019 Man Booker International shortlist is testament to that, and as both gatekeepers and readers we need to carry on balancing for better so that the legacy of the Year of Publishing Women is not limited to one year, but carries on challenging the status quo until the status quo itself is changed.

The Man Booker International 2019 longlist: picks, celebrations, and regrets

The picks

Last week saw the announcement of the Man Booker Prize longlist, and with it a remarkable and welcome surge of women in translation: more than half of the thirteen books selected this year are by women writers. The two books I was particularly delighted to see on the longlist were Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, a funny, subversive and insightful pseudo-noir murder mystery translated by Antonia Lloyd Jones for Fitzcarraldo Editions (full review here), and Alia Trabucco Zerán’s The Remainder, a glorious tumult of historical memory, friendship, guilt, families and death, with raining ash and a lot of pisco, translated by Sophie Hughes for And Other Stories (short review here, a more in-depth one to follow). Drive Your Plow and The Remainder are very different narratives, with distinct preoccupations: an elderly woman struggles to be taken seriously in rural Poland in Drive Your Plow, and three young Chileans weighed down by a past they can never experience go on the road trip of a lifetime in The Remainder. But these two books also have plenty in common: they are both brave, distinctive, brilliantly translated, and a window onto the culture they represent.

The celebrations

As you can imagine, I find it immensely heartening to see a clear move away from the some of the biases that have traditionally prevailed in literary prizes: in an article for In Other Words, Daniel Hahn wrote of the 2017 Man Booker International prize that the longlist reflected “a significant gender imbalance (as we see every year), and a significant bias towards European writers and European languages (as we see every year, too).” Hahn goes on to note that these imbalances were indicative of the overall submissions pool, and so this leads me to wonder whether the tipping away from gender bias and eurocentrism on the 2019 longlist might also reflect moves in this direction more generally. Nine languages and twelve countries are represented in the thirteen books, and here’s where they’re coming from:

Europe is not quite as dominant as in previous years, which suggests the beginnings of a shift towards greater diversity and globalisation. As for languages, Spanish is best represented with three of the thirteen books:

All of the books translated from Spanish are from Latin America rather than peninsular Spain, which also partly accounts for the more diverse geographical spread. Arabic and French tie for second place, and of the remaining six, two are Asian and four European.

It’s not only women writers who make up the majority of this list: independent publishers are the big winners, with eleven of the thirteen entries. The year when gendered and eurocentric biases are less evident is the same year that independent publishers dominate the longlist, suggesting a direct correlation between the activism of smaller presses and increased parity in the translated literature market. As MBI judge Maureen Freely noted in an article in The Guardian, “the really good independents have become the cultural talent scouts”, and The Remainder and Drive Your Plow are stellar examples of this: The Remainder is a debut novel published by And Other Stories as part of their commitment to the Year of Publishing Women, and Tokarczuk was discovered by Jacques Testard of Fitzcarraldo Editions because of his determination to seek out a Polish author as a response to the backlash against the Polish community in the wake of the Brexit referendum.

The regrets…

Though there is much to celebrate, I can’t offer a reaction without mentioning the books I wish had been on the longlist. I am fully aware that I have not read all thirteen longlisted books, and that my opinions are necessarily inflected with my own subjectivities, but for what it’s worth, I am baffled that these two did not feature on the longlist:

Disoriental (Négar Djavadi, translated by Tina Kover for Europa Editions): this is not just one of the best books I’ve read for this project, it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read. A sweeping family saga set in twentieth-century Iran, Disoriental is also a personal story of exile and (dis)integration in Europe. It’s ambitious, witty, wrenching, and the translation by Tina Kover is exquisite.

Resistance (Julián Fuks, translated by Daniel Hahn for Charco Press): another story of exile and an intensely poetic imbrication of the personal and the historical. Resistance is a haunting account of Fuks’s troubled relationship with his adopted brother, and the consequences of displacement. The writing is taut, subtle, and lyrical, and Hahn’s translation is flawless.

The shortlist?

I fervently hope that both Drive Your Plow and The Remainder will make it onto the shortlist. Last year’s winner and a debut author, two fantastic books and two impeccable translations. I’ll leave you with a favourite quotation from each:

“Can it really be true? Is this nightmare really happening? This mass killing, cruel, impassive, automatic, without any pangs of conscience, without the slightest pause for thought, though plenty of thought is applied to ingenious philosophies and theologies. What sort of a world is this, where killing and pain are the norm? What on earth is wrong with us?”
Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead

“the heat intensifies and I push it away and the ash is falling and I push it away and the memories come flooding back and I push them away too, and I think that I could just let go, let it all out and then leave, but no, I don’t, cos if I did that I’d get lost and I’ve already got enough missing people on my hands; I’m never going missing, never ever.”
The Remainder

Further reading:

Tony offers the Man Booker International shadow panel’s official response to the longlist

Michael at Translated Lit does a roundup of the longlist

Jess and Will at Books and Bao choose their favourites, with links to reviews of several of the longlisted books

My full reviews of two other longlisted books:

Samanta Schweblin, Mouthful of Birds, translated by Megan McDowell (Oneworld Books, 2019)

Annie Ernaux, The Years, translated by Alison L. Strayer (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2018)

A murder mystery with a difference: Olga Tokarczuk, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead

Translated from the Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2018

Man Booker International prizewinner Olga Tokarczuk returns with this crime-mystery-noir novel set in rural Poland. Translated by the immensely skilled Antonia Lloyd-Jones, recipient of the 2018 award for promoting Polish literature abroad, it was a pretty safe bet that Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead was going to be amazing. Indeed, the translation is virtually flawless, and the book itself a page-turning extravaganza of understated tragi-comedy. The narrative is much more linear than that of Tokarczuk’s prize-winning Flights, and instead of the “fragments” and vignettes that peopled Flights, this is a more traditional story-telling. However, there is nothing predictable or formulaic about it for that, and it is not even “just” a story. There are philosophical reflections on life and death, acute observations of ageing and invisibility, and poignant reminders about the luxury of being able to cross borders, all of which are brought together seamlessly in a tale of vengeance, murder, and retribution in which “everything is connected with everything else, and we are all caught in a net of correspondences of every kind.”

Image from fitzcarraldoeditions.com

If you felt so inclined, you could easily read Drive Your Plow simply as a murder mystery; there is no didactic obligation to read it differently. But through her narrator, Mrs Duszejko, Tokarczuk also offers up some profound insights into the human condition (“The psyche is our defence system – it makes sure we’ll never understand what’s going on around us”), the lack of equality for women (“nobody takes any notice of old women who wander around with their shopping bags”), the elderly, (“once we have reached a certain age, it’s hard to be reconciled to the fact that people are always going to be impatient with us”) and the non-conformist (“suddenly I saw the four of us in a different way – as if we had a lot in common, as if we were a family. I realized that we were the sort of people whom the world regards as useless.”) She is scathing about the hypocrisy of social structures (including the police, the church, and the education system), but Drive Your Plow is also an indictment of animal cruelty, a reminder not to stand in judgement, not to dismiss those who are different from ourselves, and not to underestimate those we disagree with. Yet this is not a “preachy” novel (indeed, those who use pulpits – whether religious or hunting ones – tend to meet a sticky end); on the contrary, it’s thoughtful and thrilling.

As in any murder mystery, we are given several clues that we might gloss over. However, one overt clue comes after the discovery of the first dead body:

Only his right index finger refused to submit to the traditional pose of politely clasped hands but pointed upwards, as if to catch our attention and put a brief stop to our nervous, hurried efforts. ‘Now pay attention!’ said the finger. ‘Now pay attention, there’s something you’re not seeing here, the crucial starting point of a process that’s hidden from you, but that’s worthy of the highest attention. Thanks to it we’re all here in this place at this time, in a small cottage on the Plateau, amid the snow and the Night – I as a dead body, and you as insignificant, ageing human Beings. But this is only the beginning. Only now does it all start to happen.’

This is a novel of fate, of fatality, of fatalities, of fatalism. When you reach the end, you know there was no other way it could have gone: as Mrs Duszejko would say, it was all governed by the stars. It is not up to us to deem some things unimportant, Tokarczuk reminds us – the most insignificant detail or person may prove to be the key to enlightenment. I commented in my review of Flights that I believed we are given prompts for how to read it within the book itself, and this happens again with Drive Your Plow: the narrator tells us that “one must keep one’s eyes and ears open, one must know how to match up the facts, see similarity where others see total difference, remember that certain events occur at various levels or, to put it another way, many incidents are aspects of the same, single occurrence. And that that the world is a great big net, it is a whole, where no single thing exists separately; every scrap of the world, every last tiny piece, is bound up with the rest by a complex Cosmos of correspondences.” That this assertion is, primarily, about astrology, is no coincidence: Tokarczuk describes her writing as “constellation novels”, things that she throws up into space, and which the reader’s own imagination clusters together. And sure enough, when I went back over my notes, I realised that I had highlighted all the keys to the murder mystery, yet I had not managed to decode them until the end. For though we are given these clues, they are destabilised even as they are laid before us, as Tokarczuk makes a wry comment on writing itself, and on its ability to mean something other than what it says: “In a way, people like her, those who wield a pen, can be dangerous. At once a suspicion of fakery springs to mind – that such a Person is not him or herself, but an eye that’s constantly watching, and whatever it sees it changes into sentences: in the process it strips reality of its most essential quality – its inexpressibility.” I’ve noted before that Tokarczuk gave me the unsettling feeling that every original thought I might come up with had already been foreseen by her in the writing of her book, and this feeling was with me again as I thought about my reading of Drive Your Plow.

There is something deliberately old-fashioned about Drive Your Plow: certain nouns are given capitalisation (“Souls”, “Night”, “Person”, “Anger”, “Dusk”, etc), and there are near-archaic turns of phrase such as “whence they came” fairly regularly throughout. There is no mimicry of writing style, though; rather, it seems to be a nod to influences (such as William Blake, whose poetry stands by way of epigraphs to each chapter, and from whose work the title of the book is taken) and timeless subjects (such as corruption, prejudice, justice and compassion). Tokarczuk shows that inhumanity in all its forms, towards any living being, should not be commonplace, with Mrs Duszejko asking “what sort of a world is this, where killing and pain are the norm? What on earth is wrong with us?” Yet Mrs Duszejko does not distance herself from this “us”, though she is on the edges in so many ways. Indeed, the thing that most interested me in Drive Your Plow (apart from the murder mystery itself) was the reflection on marginalised people. The narrator is an older woman, living alone, and her love of animals and belief in astrology lead those around her to label her as a “silly old bag”, “crazy crone”, or “madwoman”. She observes how the law enforcers, either incompetent or corrupt, dismiss her easily because they need no excuse other than her age and gender. Though Mrs Duszejko is undeniably individual, Tokarczuk uses her to expose universal issues of gender inequality, ageism, and the human condition, with other characters on the margins either reinforcing or contradicting her position. Take, for example, this philosophical reflection from her elderly neighbour, an invalid lesbian author:

‘You know what, sometimes it seems to me we’re living in a world that we fabricate for ourselves. We decide what’s good and what isn’t, we draw maps of meanings for ourselves… And then we spend our whole lives struggling with what we have invented for ourselves. The problem is that each of us has our own version of it, so people find it hard to understand each other.’
There was some truth in what she said.

Though other characters are allowed to pontificate, Mrs Duszejko has the last word on where truth lies, what is truth and what is not, what is partial truth and what is nonsense. But be careful not to trust such a narrator and believe her blindly: as she herself reminds us, “One has to tell people what to think. There’s no alternative. Otherwise someone else will do it.”

Tokarczuk is a gifted writer, and the translation by Lloyd-Jones is excellent. I’ve been truly impressed with Fitzcarraldo’s publishing choices and the quality of their translations: on the whole, they are not “light reading” – indeed, they are mirrors of Mrs Duszejko’s description of the universe, “a complex Cosmos of correspondences”, but those I’ve read so far are the kind of books that stay with you, and to which you return. Necessary books, groundbreaking books, brave books. Mrs Duszejko says that “I love crossing borders”, and that is exactly what Tokarczuk’s work does: Fitzcarraldo director Jacques Testard actively sought out a Polish author as a response to the backlash against the Polish community in the UK following the Brexit referendum, and so in reading Olga Tokarczuk, we are not only enriched by this extraordinary author, but we are also resisting xenophobia and the narrowing of borders.

Review copy provided by FItzcarraldo Editions.

Man Booker International special: Olga Tokarczuk, Flights

Translated from the Polish by Jennifer Croft (Fitzcarraldo, 2017)

In honour of last night’s Man Booker International prize announcement, I’m publishing a special mid-week review post on the winning book, Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights. Though Tokarczuk is not yet as well-known in England as she is in Poland and in other parts of Europe, the award of the MBI prize to Jennifer Croft’s translation of Flights for Fitzcarraldo Editions will undoubtedly bring much-deserved attention to her work. In a recent interview, Croft says that she spent ten years trying to get Flights published, and her dedication to the text is evident throughout the translation. There were only a couple of turns of phrase or word choices that struck me as a little odd or incongruous, but when I checked these, they were perfectly standard uses of US English. So this leaves me with not a bad word to say about the translation: it is really quite beautiful. Flights is a remarkable book: observant, shrewd, philosophical and intricate, and I admire the quiet sensitivity, the range of accuracy and detail, and the depth of understanding of Tokarczuk’s text that Croft displays in her translation.

Image taken from https://fitzcarraldoeditions.com

The structure of Flights is not easy to define. It presents numerous stories of varying length – some invented, some based on historical fact, many (but not all) to do with the pickling and preserving of human bodies – and these are punctuated by the ongoing travelogue of an unnamed female narrator. Though the different stories are, for the most part, apparently unconnected, they all share common themes of movement, nomadism, and the convergence of time and place. From the harrowing tale of a mother and son vanished from a Croatian island in ‘Kunicki: Water (II)’ to the hilarious drunken sailor taking his ferryboat passengers out to the open sea in ‘Ash Wednesday Feast’, Flights is an eclectic collection of stories, and yet it is not a short story collection. It defies genre, blending short stories with travel narratives, and studies of human anatomy with philosophical musings on time and place. If there is any way of describing Flights, perhaps it is as ‘episodes’, a definition to be found within the pages of the book itself: ‘We often refer to separate stages of time as episodes. They have no consequences, interrupting time without becoming part of it. They are self-contained occurrences, each starting from scratch; each beginning and each end is absolute’. It is, however, revealing that Tokarczuk puts these words in the mouth of a young tour guide, ‘quite young, wearing army boots, her hair pinned up in a way I found amusing; she must have been fresh out of her master’s programme’. So although we are given hints as to how we might categorise this book, these are destabilised even as they are presented to us. At a later point, the narrator even muses on her choice of writing mode: ‘Am I doing the right thing by telling stories? Wouldn’t it be better to fasten the mind with a clip, tighten the reins and express myself not by means of stories and histories, but with the simplicity of a lecture, where in sentence after sentence a single thought gets clarified, and then others are tacked onto it in the succeeding paragraphs?’

Ouch. So maybe I shouldn’t try to analyse this at all, but rather refer you to Claire Armitstead’s explanation of Tokarczuk’s own view of Flights, namely that ‘what she calls her “constellation novels” throw stories, essays and sketches into orbit, allowing the reader’s imagination to form them into meaningful shapes’. I think, though, that Tokarczuk’s own definition doesn’t do justice to her cleverly crafted work. For example, if you’re still wondering what pickling human bodies has to do with travel writing, Tokarczuk gently explains it on the penultimate page, when her narrator, waiting for a flight, takes out a notebook and writes about another passenger, also waiting for a flight, and also writing in his notebook (possibly about her): ‘We will simply write each other down, which is the safest form of communication and of transit; we will reciprocally transform each other into letters and initials, immortalize each other, plastinate each other, submerge each other in formaldehyde phrases and pages’. The book itself becomes a preserved artefact – and yet it doesn’t, because it will shift and transform with every reading of it.

Is your mind boggling yet? Let’s talk about the title for a moment, then. The translated title has come under scrutiny, as there was no word in English that could cover all meanings of the original title, Bieguni. Kapka Kassabova writes of bieguni that ‘this word is the key to the book […] The bieguni, or wanderers, are an obscure and possibly fictional Slavic sect who have rejected settled life for an existence of constant movement’.  I like the idea of ‘wanderings’ rather than ‘flights’ (though it would have made for an awful title), as many of the tales in Flights deal with journeys that are not airborne. The problem of translating the title is further complicated by Monique Charlesworth’s revelation that bieguni ‘also has the meaning of running or jogging in every Slavic language, says Tokarczuk; that also defined her book in a certain way’.

I do like a knotty translation problem. Although ‘flights’ may not suggest ‘wandering’ and ‘running’, it brings other implications to the English translation that enrich the work: Flights offers a birds-eye view, it takes flight, it flees. It is an action, an act, a trajectory, the passage of time, a flock, a stairway between different levels of meaning.

“It’s slightly unnerving that every original observation I might *think* I’ve come up with about this book has already been foreseen by its author”

As for the content, I found the focus on human anatomy a little uncomfortable – get me near a scalpel and I’ll become squeamish – but the observations on the preservation of human bodies or body parts was nonetheless a thought-provoking counterpoint to the nomadism elsewhere. Tokarczuk dissects and disrupts preconceived notions of what constitutes ‘movement’ or ‘stasis’ as the mapping out of the human body becomes its own form of topography. Connections are drawn between anatomy and travel narratives: Chopin’s heart makes a posthumous journey from Paris to his desired resting place in Warsaw; the ‘phantom pain’ of a 17th-century anatomist whose leg was amputated is echoed in the ‘phantom pain’ felt by the modern-day Kunicki in the second part of his story, when his wife and child are returned to him but his wife refuses to tell him where they went. But if you think I’ve made a clever connection off my own bat, think again: Tokarczuk urges us to find these connections, because ‘there are different kinds of looking. One kind of looking allows you to simply see objects, useful human things, honest and concrete, which you know right away how to use and what for. And then there’s panoramic viewing, a more general view, thanks to which you notice links between objects, their network of reflections’. It’s slightly unnerving that every original observation I might *think* I’ve come up with about this book has already been foreseen by its author.

Perhaps this is the reason why reviewers have noted that, though they admired Flights, it is a difficult book to write about: Michael Kitto describes it as a novel ‘that should be experienced rather than written about’, and Ken Calfus found it to be ‘a dense challenging novel [that] makes for slow reading’. I must admit that I was quite relieved to find I wasn’t alone in finding this a challenging read. This does not in any way detract from my admiration of Flights, but it was certainly a different kind of experience than most of the novels I’m reading for this project. There were sections I enjoyed more than others: my favourite was the one entitled ‘Flights’, in which the bieguni appear. The protagonist, Annushka, needs to escape her daily life, and in her wanderings through monuments and crowds, she begins to follow a shrouded woman who is always muttering something to herself. Everything about this story is imbued with double meanings; take for instance Annushka’s observation of two particular passengers on her metro journey: ‘Why does she remember those two? I suspect because they’re constant, somehow, as though they moved differently, more slowly. Everyone else is like a river, a current, water that flows from here to there, creating eddies and waves, but each particular form, being fleeting, disappears, and the river forgets about them. But those two move against the current, which is why they stand out the way they do’. Couldn’t we say the same of particular episodes in Tokarczuk’s collection? And yet even as I write this, I suspect that Tokarczuk had already thought of that.

Flights is about movement, both outside and inside, physical journeys around the world and psychological journeys within oneself. It is about nomadism and spirituality (for, after all, ‘Blessed is he who leaves’). It is about connections – with places, people, ideas – and it is a rallying cry against capitalism and consumerism, against the ‘frozen order’ created to ‘falsify time’s passage’. It is about knowledge itself, but not about imprisoning or codifying knowledge in encyclopaedias or guidebooks: indeed, as Kunicki’s story shows us, the desire for too much knowledge might make us lose everything. Tokarczuk is both erudite and quick-witted (for her incisive comment, look no further than the 16-line interlude ‘North Pole Expeditions’ or the 4-line ‘Even’), and if there is a challenge in this book, it is more than just the difficulty of categorising it, or its denseness. It is the impossibility of describing time itself: ‘Moments, crumbs, fleeting configurations – no sooner have they come into existence than they fall to pieces’. Flights may not be an easy read, but it’s an extraordinarily beautiful one.

Review copy provided by FItzcarraldo Editions.