GThe first text of the new volume of essays by Olga Tokarczuk, the 2018 Nobel Prize winner for literature, leads to the edge of the known world. Based on the woodcut “Wanderer am Welttrand” from Camille Flammarion’s work “L’atmosphère – Météorologie populaire”, published in 1888, Torkarczuk describes the current state of the world, which is characterized by a loss of distance, the knowledge of the fragility of the planet, a self-reproducing digital aimlessness is. The wanderer who dares to look beyond the horizon of the familiar becomes a leitmotif of the entire volume, which, as the author reveals, is due to the pandemic. During the lockdown, she felt the need to organize her essayistic work. The volume brings together essays, lectures and speeches published in Polish in recent years, the poetics lectures given at the University of Lodz in 2018 and the speech for the award of the Nobel Prize.
Taking a step to the side, leaving the well-trodden paths, stepping out of bubbles, saying goodbye to the Vitruvian self-image of people who think they are in the center of the cosmos in order to perceive relationships, dependencies, borrowings and references and to take responsibility for the complex whole – that is the tenor that runs through the whole band. Among other things, it is about traveling, which has erased all strangeness because the traveler only sees what is in the travel guide. It seems particularly cynical that we modern travelers want to forbid others, namely people from the crisis regions of the world, to travel and, in particular, to arrive – with us. Another topic that comes up in several texts is the relationship between humans and animals. The suffering of a person, writes Tokarczuk, is easier for them to endure than the suffering of an animal, because a person can give his suffering a meaning, while there is no consolation, relief or redemption for the animal. With the writer Elizabeth Costello created by JM Coetzee, Tokarczuk calls for empathy with the other being of the animal, which ceases to be another when the boundaries created by human reason turn out to be what they are: artificial protective reflexes around the not having to perceive the everyday horror of our animal exploitation. The films by the Quay brothers, for example, which are valued by the author, reveal the “micro abysses” by showing the unfamiliar in the familiar.
Dip your finger in salt
But there is also talk of the transcendent power of translation and the co-authorship of the translator. Another central message of the texts collected here, which also includes the threefold, fragmentarily mirrored portrait of the author on the book cover, is that humans are not a self-contained and sovereign subject, but rather a collective being, often connected to other, even non-human living beings understand there. “Exercises in being a stranger” is, last but not least, a visually powerful farewell to anthropocentrism.
And again and again it is about reading and literature. First and foremost, she is a reader, Tokarczuk says, and only secondarily a writer. When she tells the story of her reading, one not only learns how literature changes the reading ego, but also how a literary text is transformed in the reader’s eyes over the years. And you can find out why it really makes sense to dip your finger in salt while reading.
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