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Primeval and Other Times.

By Olga Tokarczuk. Translated by Antonia Lloyd Jones. Prague: Twisted Spoon Press (, 2010. 248 pages. ISBN 978-80-86264-35-6. Paper. $15.50.

Late in Olga Tokarczuk's novel Primeval and Other Times (Prawiek i inne czasy, 1996), one of its primary characters, while inspecting a family tomb, reads aloud words inscribed over the graveyard's exit: "God sees. Time escapes. Death pursues. Eternity waits." This terse message (a quote form a seventeenth-century religious poem) aptly encapsulates the novel's themes. As characters in a Polish village called Primeval experience simple everyday pleasures alongside major struggles and tragedies of the twentieth century, many begin to question God's place in their lives. While the characters generally don't question His existence, they do wonder about His role in human life after creation. He sees, but does He intervene? Does He cause tragedies to happen? Or are humans alone responsible for their fate? All we can know for sure is that time marches inexorably on, and the mystery of the afterlife awaits. While this may seem existentialist, the novel is much more expansive. The questions about our existence are explored more with wonder than with negativist resignation. Ultimately, Tokarczuk is interested in the ways humans become connected to each other and to their world, and it is this idea that informs Primeval and Other Times.

Philosophical questions regarding God's role play out most significantly in chapters explaining The Game, a sort of elaborate board game given to Squire Popielski who "hadn't stopped believing in God, but God and all the rest of it were becoming rather flat and expressionless" (36). After playing The Game, he becomes obsessed with its intricate rules and unraveling the cryptic book that accompanies it. Subsequent chapters devoted to the text of the game provide different possibilities for why God created the world and His subsequent relation to His creation. By drawing attention to the process of creation and whether God has abandoned his work or retains control of it, Tokarczuk emphasizes the passage of time. Certainly the novel privileges temporality as an organizing construct. Chapter titles like "The Time of Misia" (one of the novel's main characters) direct attention to characters' actions and behavior as they affect subsequent events in the novel (emphasizing a continuous and timeless chain of actions), rather than focusing on elaborate character studies that might anchor actions to a specific time and place. Even places and objects ("The Time of Primeval," "The Time of the House") are introduced temporally and implicitly as concepts that are well established and whose ideas still remain significant.

One must also take into account Tokarczuk's own training and interest in Jungian psychology that moves away from purely theological or philosophical discussions of existence to arguing the existence of archetypal patterns. A Jungian interest in the collective unconscious allows Tokarczuk to explore whether characters can truly share experiences. Certainly, in a world wracked by wars and economic and political struggles, and one where God may be absent, people are likely to feel isolated. At one point a character is described "[lying] on his back in the rough, elusive present, and [feeling] that with every passing second he was dissolving into non-existence" (173). Later, as characters approach death, they worry about how they can leave lasting impressions: "What they feared most was that in the fervor of dying, the separating of the soul from the body or the fading of the biological structure of the brain, Misia Boska would be gone forever, all her recipes would be gone ... and finally, her thoughts, her words, the events she had taken part in, as ordinary as her life" (234-35). The passage of time and death's inevitability seemingly render irrelevant the self and the actions we have created while alive.

While such questions may suggest that any impression we can leave is transitory, a proper Jungian would likely believe otherwise. Brokenness and disconnection are merely parts of the life process: "Like every person, Misia was born broken into pieces, incomplete, in bits. Everything in her was separate-looking, hearing, understanding, feeling, sensing, and experiencing. Misia's entire future life would depend on putting it all together into a single whole, and then letting it fall apart" (42). A life's work then consists of the building of an identity, making an indelible mark on the world. Even if that whole identity breaks apart-in death, for example--those pieces will later be picked up by someone else.

It is also important to note the attention paid to sensory information here and throughout the novel. A short while later, for example, Misia's father gives her a coffee grinder that is described in detail from its manufacture through its passage into Misia's hands, "absorb[ing] all the world's confusion" along the way (44). Ultimately "the grinder, Misia and the whole world were united by the odor of freshly ground coffee" (45). The sensory, a means of taking in the world personally and physically, thus becomes one possible method for sharing experience.

Tokarczuk explores shared experience in emotional and literal terms. In the course of the novel grass bleeds, a woman experiences touch vicariously, a house has a soul, clothes have memory, mushrooms are described as possessing time, and animals dream in images. One could certainly argue that these constructs are merely figurative personifications or the conventions of magical realism, but Tokarczuk's insistence on connecting the experiences of flora, fauna, and even inanimate objects to the human experience, never privileging one over the other, indicates a desire to unify all experience in a way vital to the novel's themes. These constructs are inherently empathetic. Tokarczuk ultimately argues that sharing experience among all worldly things is a prerequisite for living. In fact, if we cannot know the nature of God or if he is an illusion or may have taken leave from us, we are left with our attachments, physical and emotional, to this world. Primeval shows us that in the past century's turbulence experience itself may be the only means left for us to share with others, and the only trace we leave in the world.
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Author:Heltzel, Chad
Publication:Sarmatian Review
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2011
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