Saturday, March 03, 2012

Primeval and Other Times - Olga Tokarczuk

The importance of having friends of similar interests from other parts of the world is that you get to know of books and writers, you otherwise tends to miss or overlook. Over the past few years I have been the beneficiary of some great recommendations from a few. This had been another strongly recommended book and I am grateful to him for this. Reading authors from Hungary and Poland , of late, I am surprised by the talents emerging from the old Eastern Block countries.

Olga Tokarczuk, paints the picture of a small town polish village ( pirmeval as the name given - which always existed and always will be) , over the 70 plus years through both world wars and the communist regime that ruled the country in the second half of 20th century. "Primeval is the place at the centre of the Universe" , satrts the novel. Located strategically between two rivers, The Black river and the White River which merge at the end of the village loosing their respective characterisitcs, and by four archangels protecting or rather watching ( as they hardly intervene in the affairs) the inhabitants of the place. The neighboring towns provide the necessary goods for living, and the lone church completes the remaining apart from the all absorbing and protecting forest.

Michal is out on war during the World War I, leaving the mill to the care of his wife Genowefa. The Tsars Soldiers came one day and took him with them. Their baby girl is born while he was still at war. Angels were present at the birth of the girl giving the mother all the support. Genowefa, running the house and the mill had her on way of flirting, but the hope of her husband's return controlled her. Michal returned from the other end of the world, he said, the other end of Russia at the eastern sea. The time of peace did not last as the German Soldiers came in and settled in their village. Half the villagers were loaded in trucks and sent to Germany for being Jews, while those resisted were killed. The German atrocities continued, raping villagers and looting things. It is then the Russians came in as liberators. Village Road now become the line of separation where continuous fighting and firing across the streets continued, until the retreat of the falling Germans. Post war control came into the hands of Communist regime.

This is the story of the place, of the people and told by them. Each has his own 'time' and they live their times in their own way. It has bad people - bad man, who nobody knew from where he came , who walked into the forest, lost his words and only howls and Cornspike lives a nomadic life sleeps with anyone in the village, later moves into the forest and submit her body at the will of badman, but continue to maintain her contact with the village, squire Popieski and his family. Michal , Genowefa and their descendants -Misia and her numerous children. Each has their own 'times' and their points. There are Kurt, the Nazi Officer, e Philosophical Russian Ivan Mukta, the drowned, the dead, the nomads, the Gods and Angels, animals living their part of the history,

The viewpoint changes from one chapter to the other. Moving it from people, animal, forest, the occupiers. However the voice does not change. It continue to be the writer's and with a strong feminine voice (not that I am complaining ). The issue in it is that the flow is not as seem less as it is in the other cases because of the change of handle. It takes a lot of effort to move the story along with out loosing its continuity. However, despite few crossing, the story in general is moved very well.

The initial part, until the end of World War II, the narration is very vivid and baroque. Not sure if this was intentional, but I found it changed a bit and dry in the later part. It is where the country being occupied by various forces, come under the control of its own, albeit being remotely controlled ideologically and politically by Soviet union. The people in general had been very passive to these forces. Be it being forced to move into the jungles by Germans, Jews being evacuated and loaded into trucks -few loosing their lives, or when the Russians came and occupied their home. They never resisted, suffered the humiliation in silence. They continued the same during the regime post the World war. On the flip side, the struggle is internalised. With the river, with the Gods, with the surroundings. Each character live in their own world.

Primeval ( always existed and always will) is a representation of any place where the land, weather, people and animal alway lived within its rules. There had been 'times' of every one in their own way, and in conjunction with the rest. There had been and will be period of oppression and difficulties. While the life goes one from one 'world' to the other as the 'times of the game' tells us , where not only the GOD but the rest of the nature takes different forms and shapes. However the core virtue of the life remain the same.

Interesting set of characters live and die in a Macondo'-ish small vilage, spanning seven decades. While the story is around few central characters, it is the wholesomeness of the village and its people give this a completeness.Its lyrical, its magical and it is moving and its comes out with a freshness. Little disappointed towards the end, but very well written, nonetheless.
Primeval and Other Times ( 1996 )

Olga Tokarczuk ( translated from Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones in 2010)

248 Pages

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