The Warsaw Book Fair takes place each May in the National Stadium, a basketlike structure flecked with the red and white of the Polish flag. On a bright Saturday morning, hundreds of orange balloons given out by an audiobook company bobbed from children’s hands, and crowds of readers browsed the booths of publishers from across Europe.
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A long line of people snaked out of the booth of the venerable publishing house Wydawnictwo Literackie and around several of the other displays. They were waiting for a signing by Olga Tokarczuk, who in recent years has established herself as Poland’s preëminent novelist and is frequently mentioned as a contender for the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Tokarczuk herself was outside: crowds make her anxious, and she was steeling herself. After staying out late the night before, she had had trouble sleeping. Tokarczuk, who is fifty-seven, is petite and striking, with the focussed energy of a yoga teacher.
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I stood with her as she smoked a chopstick-thin Vogue cigarette under the stadium’s basketwork. The building opened in 2012, and has lately become the focal point of an annual March of Independence, in November, at which members of far-right and nationalist groups have carried banners with slogans such as “Poland for the Poles” and “Stop Islamization.” It replaced a Communist-era stadium, which had become thoroughly dilapidated by the mid-nineties, when I spent most of a year in the country, learning Polish before going to graduate school. As Poland shifted to a capitalist economy, the site turned into an open-air market for counterfeit and secondhand goods, infamous for its garbage and crime. I was warned never to set foot there.
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Excavating something forgotten from Polish history and reframing it in a contemporary context has become Tokarczuk’s signature. She is best known internationally for “Flights,” her sixth novel, which was published in the United States last year, more than a decade after it appeared in Polish, and won the 2018 Man Booker International Prize. Tokarczuk calls the book—a genre-crossing agglomeration of fiction, history, memoir, and essay—a “constellation novel.” Its overall preoccupation is with the idea of journeying, but its sections are often linked by just a word or an image, allowing readers to discover their own connections. “When I first submitted it to my publishing house, they called me back and asked if perhaps I mixed up the files in my computer, because this is not a novel,” she said.
A form based on fragments is particularly suitable for a novel by an author from Poland, where national borders have changed over and over through the centuries, and where multiple ethnic groups—Poles, Ukrainians, Lithuanians, Germans, Ruthenians, Jews—have lived side by side in a cacophony of languages and experience. Central European literature generally, Tokarczuk believes, “questions reality more. It’s more distrustful of stable, permanent things.” In “Flights,” a character says, “Constellation, not sequencing, carries the truth.”
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Poland, not unlike the United States, is politically split down the middle. Law and Justice’s supporters are balanced by progressives—often younger, city-dwelling, and living in the western half of the country—who seek tolerance, multiculturalism, and a truthful reckoning with Poland’s past. These are Tokarczuk’s readers. “Even my friends who don’t read a lot, who don’t follow the latest young poets or writers, they’re reading Olga Tokarczuk,” Zofia Król, the editor of the online literary magazine Dwutygodnik, told me.
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Tokarczuk is based in Wrocław, in the southwest of Poland. She was in Warsaw not only for the book fair but also for a literary festival, called Apostrof, which took place at the Universal Theatre, a headquarters of sorts for intellectuals and artists. This year Tokarczuk was a guest curator, organizing a weeklong series of symposiums featuring leading Polish writers and intellectuals.
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The theme she had chosen was “This Is Not the Only Possible World.” One discussion focussed on what a post-religious Poland might look like. Another was about climate change and other ecological issues. In lieu of the traditional bouquet of cut flowers, each panelist was given a beech sapling as a token of appreciation.
One night, a group of educators debated the future of the Polish school system. Piotr Laskowski, a teacher in his early forties, professed disgust at the way business had co-opted words like “creativity” and “innovation.” Until recently, he’d been the head of a high school at which most decisions are made jointly by a vote of students and faculty. Schools, he said, should aim to free students from thinking about the labor market and prepare them instead to shape the world.
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Law and Justice has introduced a state-mandated curriculum: history classes are limited to Polish history, narrated from a distinctly nationalist perspective; literature classes emphasize classics of Polish literature, such as the historical novels of Henryk Sienkiewicz, rather than its great nonconformists, such as Witold Gombrowicz and Bruno Schulz.
Laskowski shrugged. A teacher who diverges from the official line “won’t get arrested,” he said, just “intimidated,” perhaps with a threat of forced retirement. Although this probably wouldn’t happen in Warsaw, he added, “if you are a teacher in a very small town or village, with a very conservative population, with a priest who teaches religion in the school, then your position changes radically.” He chuckled grimly.
PG is not an expert on Poland, but has learned a great deal about the country from Mrs. PG, who has extensive knowledge of the nation’s history.
In a nutshell, Poland is at a geographical crossroads in Europe and, during its history, has had experiences with a great many armies crossing it, including those comprised of Germans, Balts, Mongols, Prussians, Austrians and Russians. The nation has been divided and reunited on multiple occasions.
During the 19th and 20th centuries, a great many Poles emigrated to United States, Canada, Argentina, and Australia. In Chicago, Poles have long comprised a powerful ethnic voting bloc, along with Irish and Germans.
PG is informed that one can still hear Polish spoken on the streets in “Polish Downtown,” centered in an area known as The Polonia Triangle on the West Side that features Pulaski Park and The Chopin Theater.