Olga Tokarczuk’s Primeval and Other Times, finely translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, is a uniquely fantastical search through the multiple worlds and forms of time found in the life of a fictional village in Poland during the 20th century. I’ve never read anything like it. On one level, it depicts the lives of a group of families in a small village through turbulent and bloody times. But it constantly interweaves these stories with those of angels, dead souls, trees, everyday objects, water and animals. Each type of being has its own form of time and way of interacting with life.
I said the novel is a search, but a search for what? Well, that’s hard to pin down as the narrator refracts the everyday world through their multi-faceted vision. Primeval and Other Times presents at once a linear history of several families through the generations that endure two wars and a communist dictatorship alongside other levels of being. Each time I reread parts of the story, I am struck by thoughts – more than that, lived impressions that I had missed before.
In this universe, there are the eight worlds surrounding this one that a curiously whimsical and often grumpy God has created. And there are the angels who care for the souls of the characters through the events of their lives. There are the animals, the plants, the never-inanimate things that surround people and exist and experience the world in ways so different from human perception.
Primeval and Other Times keeps changing me in a deep, if half-understood way by showing how human life is intertwined with so many other levels of existence.
For example, there is Cornstalk, a woman who in other novels would appear as a homeless beggar or town whore or something of the sort but here she is presented as a multidimensional character. After birthing her still-born baby, she dreams of a great woman who surrounds and comforts her. And when she awakes, she feels as if her body is part of a single vast entity that encompasses all reality.
She could see the force that pervades everything, she could understand how it works. She could see the contours of other worlds and other times, stretched out above and below ours. She could also see things that cannot be described in words.Primeval and Other Times, Kindle edition, Location 242
The narrator has a way of seeing the people of Primeval not exactly as archetypes but simply as ordinary folk whose lives necessarily embody all the mystery and magic of the worlds that surround them. There is the squire who becomes obsessed with a strange game that takes him through the eight worlds God has created.
There is Misia who is born, like every person, broken into the separate pieces of her senses, her feelings, her thoughts, and whose “entire future life would depend on putting it all together into a single whole, and then letting it fall apart.”
There is the caretaker who decides to spend the rest of his life building and rebuilding the roof of a house. There are the husbands, wives, children and lovers of several generations, but then there are also the dead whose restless souls often have a hard time staying away from the bodies they once inhabited.
There is the Drowned Man who realizes he can move faster than anyone, by thought alone. There is the Bad Man, someone who got lost in the mysterious forest of Primeval and gradually turned into a beast of prey who felt most comfortable walking on all fours.
And there are the things that are also “beings steeped in another reality.” Take Misia’s coffee grinder:
Like every other thing, the grinder absorbed all the world’s confusion: images of trains under fire, idle rivulets of blood, and abandoned houses, as a different wind played with their windows every year. It absorbed the warmth of human bodies going cold and the despair of abandoning the familiar. Hands touched it, and they all brushed it with an immeasurable quantity of thoughts and emotions. The grinder accepted them, because all kinds of matter have this capacity – to arrest whatever is fleeting and transitory.Primeval and Other Times, Kindle edition, Location 516
This narrator, somehow partaking of many worlds and seeing the people they follow through the terrible destruction of the last century, presents a series of 60 fragments of time capturing many forms of being that infuse me with a sense of wholeness that is hard to explain. There is fantasy, magic, even mystery, mingling into the realistic depiction of the changing lives unfolding across generations.
For me, the narrator is perhaps the strongest and strangest being of Primeval and Other Times, at once detached, analytical, all-knowing, shifting through times and levels of reality, yet full of sympathy, much like the angels they describe. They are present with the living and the dead, with the intimate details of people’s lives and the eternal qualities of things, the consciousness of animals and plants, the souls of rivers and trees.
This is not a book with a conventional plot, though the lives of its characters provide all the drama and tension you might expect from a story about a village at the center of wars and invasion. I confess I’m at a loss to describe a lot about the story without giving it all away, but I know that it’s one of the most important I have ever read. I hope you’ll give it a chance, amid the cascade of more conventional fantasies.