Literature Nobel winner Olga Tokarczuk collects her award from Sweden's King

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Poland's Nobel Prize in Literature laureate for 2018, Olga Tokarczuk, collected her award on Tuesday in Stockholm from the hands of the King of Sweden Carl XVI Gustaf.

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.

Nobel Week lecture

The Swedish Academy had said Olga Tokarczuk, 57, won the prize for "a narrative imagination that with encyclopaedic passion represents the crossing of boundaries as a form of life".

In her Nobel Week lecture on Saturday (December 7), Tokarczuk spoke of divisions in society in her address as well as on climate change.

"The climate emergency and the political crisis in which we are now trying to find our way, and which we are anxious to oppose by saving the world did not come out of nowhere. We often forget that they are not just the result of a twist of fate or destiny, but of some very specific moves and decisions, economic, social, and to do with world outlook (including religious ones). Greed, failure to respect nature, selfishness, lack of imagination, endless rivalry and lack of responsibility have reduced the world to the status of an object that can be cut into pieces, used up and destroyed. That is why I believe I must tell stories as if the world were a living, single entity, constantly forming before our eyes, and as if we were a small and at the same time powerful part of it. Thanks very much," said the Polish novelist.

Tokarczuk trained as a psychologist before publishing her first novel in 1993. Since then, she has produced a steady and varied stream of works and her novel "Flights" won her the high-profile Man Booker International Prize last year. She was the first Polish author to do so.

The author wrote on Facebook: "Nobel Prize for Literature! Joy and emotion took my speech away. Thank you very much for all your congratulations!"

She later told TVN she was proud that her books covering small towns in Poland can be read universally and be important for people elsewhere in the world.

"I believe in the novel. I think the novel is something incredible. This is a deep way of communication, above the borders, above languages, cultures. It refers to the in-depth similarity between people, teaches us empathy," she said.

On winning a Polish literary award in 2015 for "The Book of Jacob", which deals with Poland's relations with its Jewish minority and neighbouring Ukraine, she outraged nationalists with her comments and received death threats.

Poland's culture minister, Piotr Gliński, said the award to Tokarczuk was a success for Polish culture. Earlier this week, Gliński said he had started reading Tokarczuk's books many times but never finished any of them, a failing that he said on Twitter he would now seek to correct.

Donald Tusk, a former Polish prime minister who is now President of the European Council, which includes the heads of state or government of EU member states, wrote on Twitter: "I will brag about it in Brussels as a Pole and a faithful reader who has read everything from beginning to end."

Autor: gf / Źródło: TVN24 News in English, Reuters