“Game on drums and tambourines”: the moving universe of Olga Tokarczuk


Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk in 2014.

“Game on drums and tambourines, followed by The Wardrobe and other stories” (Gra na wielu bebenkach), by Olga Tokarczuk, translated from Polish by Maryla Laurent, Black on White, 352 p., €23.50, digital 15 €.

In her Nobel Prize acceptance speech (2018), the Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk praised the fact that literature had “magnificently preserved its right to oddities, phantasmagoria, provocations, the grotesque and madness” (The Sweet Narrator, Black on White, 2020). This right, and the dizzying freedom it authorizes, were already found in its weird stories (Black on White, 2020). But Olga Tokarczuk has always used it, as evidenced by Playing on drums and tambourinesa collection of short stories written in 2001, finally translated by the talented Maryla Laurent.

Read also (2018): Article reserved for our subscribers “The Books of Jakob”: the messianic epic of Olga Tokarczuk

Did you say weird? In these stories, everything begins in the most ordinary way. “When we moved in, we bought a wardrobe. » Or : “A. was a real computer genius, but he still lived on unemployment benefit. ” Or : “Dear Madam, thank you for the dictaphone”… Sometimes, it seems that the author, driving the point home, wants to drown her characters in the greatest possible banality: “This is what I look like: I am neither tall nor short, neither too fat nor too thin, my hair is neither light nor dark. My eyes are of an indeterminate color. I am not yet old, but I am no longer young. I easily disappear in the crowd. »

Yet this normalcy never lasts long. The real twists and distorts, the incongruous invites itself… A couple is attracted by a wardrobe to the point of letting themselves be “swallowed up” by it and taking up permanent residence there (“The Wardrobe”). A thriller reader allows herself to intervene in the plot – too conventional in her eyes: “Crime always followed by punishment” ! – of the novel she is reading. The dead, as if by chance, will therefore multiply there (“Open your eyes, you are no longer alive”). A writer comes across a double of himself: a ” other “ Who “disgustingly and painfully resembles him like a look-alike” and begins to correct his manuscript (“Le Double fictionnel de l’auteur”)…

The literary heritage of Mitteleuropa

These forays into the supernatural recall certain short stories by Isaac Bashevis Singer (1904-1991), another Nobel Prize winner and compatriot of Tokarczuk, who dared to make dead geese cry out or miraculously fly a paragraph from a printed text to another. It is the literary heritage of Mitteleuropa which is profiled here in small touches: a touch of ironic strangeness à la Kafka, a distanced or absurd humor à la Ionesco, all bathed in a moving universe, as with Musil. In this chaotic setting, the contours are not stable, be it geographical borders or lines separating the past from the present and even from a vaguely dystopian future. As for the real, it appears, according to the stories, “fuzzy”, “disjointed”, “alogical”, “illusory”, “floating” or “nebulous”. Never much different from a dream or a waking nightmare.

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