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- The Best Reviewed Books of the WeekMay 18, 2018
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Acclaimed Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk has received a steady stream of hate mail and even death threats after questioning her country’s view of itself as “an open, tolerant country.” As one person put it in a post to Tokarczuk’s Facebook page, “The only justice for these lies is death. Traitor.” Many agree that Tokarczuk’s “betrayal” must be punished; milder comments call for her expulsion from Poland. On a visit to Krakow last week, Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich spoke out in support of Tokarczuk, whom she called a “magnificent writer,” saying, “Some people would happily kick me out of Belarus in just the same way others are now calling for Tokarczuk to be removed from Poland.” While others have also expressed their solidarity with the author, the widespread outrage at Tokarczuk’s remarks has yet to subside.
The remarks in question are taken from a television interview Tokarczuk gave shortly after receiving Poland’s highest literary honor, the Nike, on October 4. She was awarded the Nike for her latest book, Księgi Jakubowe (The Books of Jacob), a monumental novel that delves into the life and times of controversial historical figure Jacob Frank, leader of a heretical Jewish splinter group that ranged the Habsburg and Ottoman Empires and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth seeking basic safety as well as transcendence. Tokarczuk’s 12th book, considered by many critics to be her masterpiece, The Books of Jacob is also a suspenseful and entertaining novel that remained a national bestseller for months after its November 2014 release.
As the translator into English of The Books of Jacob, I asked Tokarczuk in April if she’d mind if I created a Facebook page for her Anglophone readers featuring links to published excerpts and the like. She agreed, and I quietly created the page, inviting a few friends to like it but putting off broader promotion until we had accumulated more posts. On October 4, I shared a picture of Tokarczuk accepting her award. Within hours this photo had been shared hundreds of times, and hundreds of new fans had liked our page and posted their congratulations. That night I went to bed feeling pleasantly surprised, delighted on Tokarczuk’s behalf that her extremely well-deserved fame throughout Europe was starting to cross more borders still.
But when I awoke the next morning, I was confronted with a different variety of surprise altogether. My email inbox was filled with Facebook notifications of comment after comment attacking Tokarczuk, calling for her immediate deportation, mutilation, and/or murder. As one commenter wrote, “You probably don’t even realize it but you’ll never be safe now in this country you’ll always be treated as a LIAR and genetic waste material” [sic]. In addition, there were numerous unrepeatable misogynist slurs and outright Holocaust denials. Worse was Tokarczuk’s Polish-language Facebook page, not to mention the countless other digital venues for such attacks.
An additional thread in these posts was the accusation that Tokarczuk is Ukrainian, not Polish, due to her traditionally Ukrainian last name. Another outraged Facebooker wrote, “Get out of our country since you seem to have such a problem with it. Hitler’s conspirators were Ms. Tokarczuk’s compatriots, i.e. the Ukrainians. Tokarczuk’s dad probably killed more Jews than all Poles combined. Let’s hope Putin finally instates some order in that Ukrainian pseudo-nation.” Anti-Ukrainian sentiment in Poland has risen recently with fears of an influx of illegal immigrants should the current conflict in Ukraine intensify. More varieties of xenophobia included anti-Muslim sentiment and anti-Americanism.
Stunned and also sickened by what I was reading, I wrote to Tokarczuk to ask if she was alright, and I turned to the Polish press in search of some explanation for this sudden outpouring of hate, absolutely unprecedented in Tokarczuk’s longstanding and distinguished career. I found an explanation in Tokarczuk’s post-awards interview, in which she said, among other things, “We have come up with this history of Poland as an open, tolerant country, as a country uncontaminated by any issues with its minorities. Yet we committed horrendous acts as colonizers, as a national majority that suppressed the minority, as slave-owners and as the murderers of Jews.”
As Cambridge University Professor Stanley Simon Bill notes, “one of the problems here was that, when quoted out of context, it sounded to people (or they chose to interpret it this way) as if Tokarczuk were making unjust general claims about Polish history. In fact, Tokarczuk is just part of a broader movement of Poles simply trying to bring some balance to the national narrative, and to talk about the dark pages as well as the light,” a project Bill calls “admirable.” Jagiellonian University Professor Roma Sendyka explains that “Poles, tormented time and time again throughout history by episodes of radical turmoil, maintained their identity on the basis of such immaterial qualities as ethics, culture and religion. We will not part easily with the image we have of ourselves as righteous, honorable, upstanding.”
Since the 1980s, however, this identity has been called into question by artists and academics through movements like so-called “critical art,” films like Paweł Pawlikowskis much-acclaimed Ida, research initiatives such as the Post-Dependence Studies Center—which examines, among other subjects, Poland’s colonization of Lithuania, Belarus and Ukraine—and the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews, built on the site of the former Warsaw Ghetto. New historical works like Princeton Professor Jan Gross’s Neighbors, on the murder of Polish Jews in the village of Jedwabne, have remained intensely controversial; Gross is currently facing a lawsuit from Poland for having claimed that Poles may have killed more Jews than they did Germans during the Second World War. Sendyka calls Tokarczuk’s pronouncement of “an uncomfortable truth” about Poland’s history, “brave and necessary”—in particular in light of the “paroxysms of moral panic” it’s provoked.
It is certainly also worth noting that the political climate in Poland has been particularly tense this month. In terms of their potential to determine the nation’s future, the elections of October 25th were arguably the most important in Poland since the fall of the Soviet Union. The conservative Law and Justice (PiS) Party roundly defeated the incumbent Civic Reform (PO) Party, which has maintained a largely pro-European economic and social liberalism. Law and Justice has promised family-focused reforms, including potential bans on abortion and in-vitro fertilization, and a reprioritization of Polish national interests as opposed to those of the EU.
Furthermore, while set in the 18th century, The Books of Jacob definitely taps into a 21st-century zeitgeist. It encourages its readers to reexamine their histories and reconsider their perspectives on the shape Europe will take in coming years. It celebrates and problematizes diversity in its plot and in the heterogeneity of its characters. It subtly participates in the debates dividing Europe—and the world—on how to protect tolerance, how to define intolerance, how to set and abide by the limits of contemporary sovereignty, and on specific issues such as how to handle an influx into Central Europe of Syrian refugees, in both practical and moral terms.
Hungarian translator George Szirtes has recently noted “the fierce, unrelenting rhetoric of hatred” that has pervaded that country’s conversations on Syrian refugees, who have been “mistreated and demonized as a matter of policy.” Hungary has now closed its borders with both Serbia and Croatia. Numerous Polish intellectuals have spoken out in favor of welcoming Syrian refugees into Poland, which has remained largely unaffected by the crisis until now; many others have demanded that the opposite occur.
A recent survey conducted by major news outlet Gazeta Wyborcza revealed that the majority of Poles feared religious and moral conflict connected with the possibility of an increased Muslim presence in the country. And the notion of the other as potential toxin to Poland’s otherwise robust national organism was recently revived by Law and Justice chairman Jarosław Kaczyński, who warned that refugees could spread infectious diseases if allowed into Poland, insisting they had already brought “cholera to the Greek islands, dysentery to Vienna, various types of parasites.” Professor Radosław Markowski of the Polish Academy of Sciences has said that Poland will likely become “another Hungary” in the hands of the Law and Justice Party.
Debates such as these are as urgent as they are fundamental, and I am in awe of Tokarczuk for the deftness, patience and lyrical grace of her prose that truly helps to deepen them through empathy and intelligence. I am honored to translate The Books of Jacob into English. Whether or not I’ll stick around as the administrator of her English-language Facebook page, however, I’m not entirely sure.
Tokarczuk emailed me back right away to let me know that she was fine. A few days later, she posted the following status on her personal Facebook page: “This experience has taught me that hate mail, or hatred, even if it’s able to engulf so many people and incite them to such aggressive, undignified behavior, nonetheless it also—and in spite of their intentions—leads to the creation of a countermovement. The enormous amount of solidarity I’ve experienced is a testament to this.
“But it would be in vain for my aggressive and belligerent adversaries to await a response. I will not have a conversation in a climate of threats and invectives. I encourage them instead to read and to honestly reflect on the subject of Polish history; this history is comprised not only of great and glorious moments, but also of periods of shame and disgrace. Such discussions are incredibly necessary for us to have. Better late than never.
This essay originally appeared at Asymptote.