Nobel Prize winner opens International Writers Festival in Jerusalem

Olga Tokarczuk talks to The Jerusalem Post on the influence of books.

 NOBEL PRIZE winner Olga Tokarczuk in Jerusalem this week (photo credit: GITAI SILVER)
NOBEL PRIZE winner Olga Tokarczuk in Jerusalem this week
(photo credit: GITAI SILVER)

Nobel Prize winner Olga Tokarczuk captivated the audience Sunday night at the opening of the International Writers Festival and the International Book Forum in Jerusalem.

Olga Tokarczuk was applauded by 500 people. She charmed the audience with her sense of humor, distance to herself, and of course by sharing her ways of working on her books.

Tokarczuk, who studied psychology, is one of Poland’s most acclaimed writers. Her books have been translated into many languages, (including Hebrew-language versions translated by Miriam Borenstein) of The Books of Jacob and Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead. She likes to work in different genres – in June, her first horror novel is coming out, Empuzjon – and she has written short stories and long novels. 

She has been awarded some of the most prestigious awards, including the 2018 Nobel Prize for her historical novel The Books of Jacob. She dedicated eight years of her life to it, including many hours on detailed historical research.

“My writing method resembles a bit of crossing a stream over stones. Where stones are historical facts and the water of the stream is my writer’s imagination and the attempt to give the story the narrative meat,” she told The Jerusalem Post.

 Bookshelf (credit: Wikimedia Commons) Bookshelf (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Asked how different the experience of writing the historical book was in comparison to other genres, she said: “I had a responsibility to stick to the facts... to put some level of control on the imagination.” But, she added, “only as a writer who writes novels could I have told this complicated story.” 

The book's main character, Jacob Frank (1726-1791), was a Polish-Jewish religious leader, a false messiah and the founder of the mystical movement in Judaism called Frankism. Tokarczuk discovered Frank by coincidence.

“This character, very controversial, was so interesting to me that it put all my curiosity as a writer immediately on standby,” she recalls.

“His story was displaced repeatedly from the collective consciousness. It was triply forgotten,” she says, “by Orthodox Jews, who saw in him a traitor, [and] by Poles and the Catholic Church, who saw him as a heretic and imprisoned him for 12 years.”

The third group was the descendants of Frank’s followers, who converted and wished to forget their Jewish origins. “Probably afraid of antisemitism,” says Tokarczuk. “Not being Jewish [myself], I could have more distance to the story,” underlines the writer.

This book gave her a chance to show the complexity of mutual relations and cultural influences of Poles and Jews; the chance to show that Poland used to be multicultural and multilingual.

“Assimilation is often perceived as [gaining] something, but this is also a losing of the identity,” she said at the opening of the festival.

Fans of Tokarczuk’s literature all over the world love her interesting narration, her perception of the world she shows and creates and the mysticism involved. 

But she is also known for her commitment to the principles of equality and minority rights. Tokarczuk believes that a writer should be politically involved, but in a different way than politicians are.

“As a writer, I understand politics as an awareness of my own world view; as a moral stance in the present world, and asking questions, not making statements on temporary topics.” 

Her second book translated into Hebrew, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, centers on a lonely woman who shows compassion and love for animals and nature, but renounces social frameworks and orders.

During the Sunday meeting in Jerusalem, Tokarczuk was asked if books can influence the world. Her response was: “Herzl wrote a book…”