The Tender Narrator

Czuły narrator is the book Olga Tokarczuk finally had time to write in 2020. When the world slowed down, she could, too (her beautiful picture book The Lost Soul, also illustrated by Joanna Concejo, was ever so prescient about slowing down). Much of her writing in this collection premiered for a different audience, including political essays (in Polityka and Krytyka Polityczna) and lectures to students of philology at the University of Łodź. Yet Tokarczuk sees things so clearly and often so far ahead of most other people, that those pieces have become all the more relevant in 2021.

If you already a fan, you will enjoy this collection enormously, as it gives you insight into Tokarczuk’s ideas and experiences before, during, and after writing her novels. Even if you haven’t read a word of hers before, she has a lot of interesting things to say about the writing process itself, how it works, and why it matters: “Language is the knife and fork we use to consume reality.”

Reading shapes our writing, as Tokarczuk is well aware. I didn’t know – but wasn’t surprised – that her father was a librarian, and she learned to read sitting on the floor between the shelves of the library where he worked. Reading her book, I learned some splendid new words – “ognosia” (the opposite of agnosia) and metaxy ( “in-betweenness”). And she gets you thinking about some very interesting questions.

Do we change the books we read, and the characters in them? Do they learn from us, because we read them? Who are those characters and most interestingly, who is the narrator? If writing is making the word flesh,the act of creating a story, who is the “I” telling that story?

Culture, for Tokarczuk, is a delicate balancing act between personal and collective languages. Literature is so important because it shows us that shared language works differently in other times and places, giving us different visions of the world. And now, more than ever, we need not only shared stories, but stories to help us understand why others’ visions are different.

We’ll have to wait a little while for The Tender Narrator to be translated into English – her epic, extraordinary The Books of Jacob is coming first – but while you’re waiting, you could do a lot worse than return to Olga Tokarczuk’s Nobel Lecture, translated by Jennifer Croft and Antonia Lloyd-Jones. As Tokarczuk concludes in that lecture, also entitled The Tender Narrator: “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.”

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