Saturday, December 10, 2016

Olga Tokarczuk's House of Day, House of Night

With interlocking approaches of antic myth, oneiric philosophy, iconographic satire, existential apocalypse, sexual transference and inversion, historical erasure, and folkloric recovery, Olga Tokarczuk’s 1998 novel, House of Day, House of Night, may be seen as an over-ambitious stew of spare parts and mismatched formulas. But the author mostly succeeds in holding it all together through geographical, temporal observation and imagination. Set in fictional Nowa Ruda after WWII, when that town was ceded to south-west Poland from Germany, the novel intersperses many narratives: longer segments on the co-existing mixed-up sexual identity of the protagonist’s life with his work on the tragic fate of Saint Kummernis; sexual boredom and excitement centring on another hermaphroditic interloper into the life of a couple in a moribund marriage; death recipes involving gathered forest mushrooms; a woman who (hazily) ‘succeeds’ in pursuing the man in her repetitive dreams; a wise old crone (neighbour Marta) who is presented through a subtly ingenious filter, in a mythical play against stereotype in modernist re-occurence, and with whom the head narrator is unable to communicate with rationally, but whose pervasive ruminations on entropy and death underscore the work. Here’s an extended passage, as seen through Marta’s eyes:

“Once she saw a valley, over which hung a low, orange sky. All the lines of this world were indistinct and the shadows were blurred, cast by some alien light. In the valley there were no houses, no traces of humanity, not a single clump of nettles or a wild currant bush was growing. There was no stream, though the place where one used to be was overgrown with thick, hard, tawny grass, like a scar. In this world there was no day, and no night either. The orange sky kept shining all the time—neither warm nor cold, motionless and indifferent. The hill was still covered in forest, but when she looked at it closely she could see that it was dead; at some point it had hardened and turned to stone. Pine cones hung on the spruce trees, and their branches were still covered in ashen needles, because there was no wind to scatter them. She has a terrible foreboding that if any sort of movement were to occur in this landscape the forest would come crashing down and turn to dust.”

Similar to the frequent Kummernis-Paschalis narrative, though, the above passage is used, earlier in the novel, word for word, from the mind of a clairvoyant widower, Leo, who follows it up with, “That was how the end must look. No deluge, no rains of fire, no Auschwitz, no comet. This is how the world will look when God has deserted it, whoever he is ... In this spectral light everything will crumble.” There is an attack, online, on the Antonia Lloyd-Jones’ translation of House of Day, House of Night by a reviewer who posits that the novel fails, in its transferred language, to understand a supposed feminist take on what Tokarczuk was up to. I can’t comment as to specifics since I don’t understand Polish and I won’t access the complete review (it costs $41), but my imperfect understanding is that the author is erasing the more superficial gender complaints with a wider sympathy, that once an existential realization occurs (typically, in the novel, when age has granted wisdom to some of the characters), a universal application, among men and women, takes over.

You’ve gathered this isn’t light fare, but in that Eastern European vein, humour hovers over the often bleak narratives like a mischievous, levitating sprite, the best scene of which involves a man who, reflecting on a three-score-and-ten well-lived, dies on a hillcrest at the exact junction between Czechoslovakia and Poland, and is then discovered by authorities who drag him to the more bureaucratically expedient side of the border.

Dense in observational weight and light, Tokarczuk’s novel is a metaphysical gem.

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