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Poland's Tokarczuk: 'Literature Is Always Political'

Olga Tokarczuk
Olga Tokarczuk
Olga Tokarczuk is one of Poland's most popular contemporary writers and essayists. During her appearance at a recent book fair in Prague, the 48-year-old author spoke to RFE/RL about the challenges of pursuing a literary career in Poland, and the role of writers in both democratic and authoritarian societies.

RFE/RL: In the past, writers were seen as very powerful members of society, people who were capable of influencing the masses. Has that changed? What is the role of writers in contemporary society?

Olga Tokarczuk:
The role of the writer has always been political, in the broadest possible sense of the political. When I say political, I mean a conscious approach to the reality that surrounds us. More often than not, such an approach should involve, in my opinion, the writer finding vantage points that will allow us to see the imperceptible.

Having said that, writers, poets, and artists shine light on matters we have lost the ability to take notice of -- matters which we've grown accustomed to and which appear obvious and normal to us. These are things that -- particularly in authoritarian systems -- are often wrong, and violent.

In this way, a writer -- and this may sound romantic -- performs the duty of a bell that rings to call attention to our too-hasty, habit-bound acceptance of reality. I believe that there is no literature that can remain nonpolitical in this broad sense of the word, apart from romance novels or pulp fiction, of course. Quality literature, literature that wants to achieve something, is always political.

RFE/RL: Does that mean writers have the power to change reality?

Yes, absolutely. Art has the power to change reality. It brings us in contact with imperceptible points of view. Then, when we realize how much different the world could be, we become more politically involved. We have ideas and an alternative.

RFE/RL: That possibility can create divisions between writers in authoritarian countries. Some side with the regime, others with the opposition, advocating change.

It's very visible and clear in authoritarian systems, but it's applicable in democracies as well. The role of the writer who wakes us up and expands our consciousness is even more needed here [in the West], as democracies can dull our social sensitivity. When we do well and feel safe, we lose our natural tendency to challenge things.

RFE/RL: How do you feel about state honors and awards that were offered to writers in Poland and elsewhere during the communist era? Were they simply a bribe that governments used to win over unyielding writers?

As I remember the situation in Poland before 1989, the regime was always trying to buy the writers. And it was a very subtle game the establishment played with the authors. I'm thinking now of our [Jaroslaw] Iwaszkiewicz, an ingenious, unique writer who was enmeshed at the same time in a never-ending game with the system -- a game that eventually ended badly for him. (Editor's note: Iwaszkiewicz, who cooperated with the Communist regime, was largely discredited following the collapse of communist in 1989; his works have only recently begun to regain popularity.)

RFE/RL: How well off are Polish writers financially? Is it possible to make a living? Not by writing about vampires and detectives, but by producing quality fiction?

Yes, but it's not the kind of big money that could guarantee a prosperous future. I think that in Western Europe, writers live more around their books. In Germany, there's a very rich and developed system of scholarships. It's a smart state policy, to support local authors.

Ireland sets a good example. It's a little country that has developed a special taxation system for its writers. Writers don't pay taxes in Ireland, or if they do, it's only a small amount. If you stop and think that there are [fewer than] 6 million people over there, and then consider how much this small nation contributes to the world's culture, music, and literature, you can see it's actually working. [The state support] is a driving force behind this success. I wish culture in Poland was understood the same way.

I teach a creative writing class at university that contributes to my income. But for over 10 years, I've managed to be successful and live off my books. I'm not affluent, but I don't need to resort to holding a normal, full-time job.

RFE/RL: You've been outspoken on the issue of Russia, and have written frequently about the notion of the collective psyche. What is your attitude towards this country, given its complicated history with Poland?

I don't often go to Russia, but I was there three years ago and found many things incomprehensible. I think that the only way to describe a society devoted to collective, nonreflexive rituals is, paradoxically, through awakening empathy in people, throwing showing the ordinary, human dimension of life.

I adopted this intuitive thought for my most recent book, "Runners." There's a large threat there dedicated to Russia. I attempted to describe, in as detailed a fashion as possible, the regular, plain life of an individual who is somewhat locked up, trapped in the system. Such an individual doesn't usually have the language, power, or ability to remonstrate with the system.

The problem about our part of Europe is that society is very weak. Sometimes people from the West don't get that. Nowadays it's called a civil society… but for me, Russia is an example of a place where a functioning society does not exist.

RFE/RL: There has been an outpouring of sympathy from Russia toward Poland since the April plane crash that killed President Lech Kaczynski and much of Poland's political elite. Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski even spoke of a Slavic brotherhood between Poland and Russia. Do you see that connection?

I think the Poles have always maintained more or less the same attitude toward the Russians.

On the one hand, as [19th-century poet Adam] Mickiewicz put it, there has been a very warm approach to them as our "Muscovite" friends, meaning a close relationship with the people. On the other hand, there's a terrible fear and aversion to the Russian regime, which we, the Poles, found Asiatic, appalling, threatening; as if hailing from some other civilization.

RFE/RL: How can personal relations be so good on the one hand and political ties so bad on the other?

Because there's no democracy in Russia. Russia is not a normal, European country. In a way, it's a post-feudal system. The people have very limited access to those in power. They don't elect them [in free and fair elections], so they don't feel responsible for them. And even if they do feel responsible, they still can't influence it.

So Poles have realized -- and it's been like this for centuries -- that these Red Army soldiers were not in fact representatives of that dreadful, repressive system.

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