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Olga Tokarczuk on the power of words

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Olga Tokarczuk on the power of words

The plot of “Yente”, your story in this week’s edition, revolves around a dying old woman who is brought to a wedding reception and kept alive so as not to spoil the celebration, and who then refuses to die of her own accord. How did you get the idea for this character, Olga?

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I have asked myself this question many times: where do literary figures come from? Where is the inspiration for these characters? It’s not something I can answer. They do not result from rational, rational, or pragmatic decisions. Mine at least. It’s more of a conglomerate from many factors. Sometimes, I create a character using characters I already know. But characters often emerge spontaneously and almost entirely, so I’m certainly not “creating” them. So it was with Yente. She was ready to go. She was, in a sense, quite autonomous. Because she is able to come up with her own ideas for dialogue and scenes, a character like yours is great to work with. It reminds me of other female protagonists in my fiction. Older women who have so much to share and don’t mind breaking the rules to do what they want.

The story is an adaptation of “The Books of Jacob”, your novel that will be published next year in the USA. The book is about Jacob Frank, the self-proclaimed messiah from 18th century. Yente is suspended in a non-living, dead state for much of the action. What is her role in the book? Why is she there?

I find it hard to talk about Yente, a character in a novel like “The Books of Jacob”, which is made up of so many threads as if it could be separated from any other thread. Yente has a unique role in this book. She is a strange, powerful narrator and, due to her state of emergency can travel through the time and have a panoramic view of the world.

Your character was instrumental in helping me finish The Books of Jacob. This came up as I was reading the third chapter. I was overwhelmed with the sheer volume of events, figures and problems. I also doubted that I could manage with a multivalent, complex narrative. Yente provided a different perspective on the story, a sort of bird’s-eye view that transcends time and space. Somewhat as a joke, I called Yente a “fourth-person narrator” and wrote texts myself.

Yente is kept alive through a type of magic or spell that her host, a younger relative writes on a piece paper and places around her neck an amulet. What is the secret to this note’s strength?

A lot of Jewish culture is centered on language. The word engine and its depth, as well as the variety and openness of meanings. Kabbalistic tradition also considers Hebrew words to be carriers of hidden meanings. These hidden meanings can be made visible using techniques like Gematria Temurah and Notarikon. This allows for amazing and insightful interpretations. Many readers of Yente’s tale will likely find echoes of Prague’s ancient Jewish legend about the golem. An elderly rabbi sculpted the golem from clay and brought it to life using a spell written on parchment. That spell was the word emet (אמת), which means “truth” in Hebrew. However, the deletion of the first letters of the generated word hit was what caused the “death” spell. This allowed the rabbi to stop the golem from starting and stopping by deleting the letter and then rewriting it. The same idea is behind Yente’s tale, except that the conjuring words merge with her physical body, stopping her death. It does not allow her return to a normal existence.

This was a very useful experience for me from a narrative and technical point of view.

As you said, a lot of the story revolves around words and letters. Yente began reading at a young ages. These letters, written on paper keep them alive. The last moments of history have witnessed words split into “substance” and “essence”. Does this split in some way represent death?

This is a great metaphor for the saving power of the word. The novel often demonstrates that what is left unsaid does not exist. This was my motivation for writing the novel: I knew Jacob Frank’s life and all those who had played a part in this historic moment would be forgotten someday. It is a moment in history that makes many people uncomfortable; it’s hard to know what to do with how to think about it. To forget Jacob Frank’s history would have alleviated that discomfort. I’ve always been curious about the mechanisms behind forgetting. I was fascinated at how much of life and reality people don’t remember. The writer has real power when they realize that words can create and save things. Aren’t we often able to recall scenes from movies or books better than what happened in real life? Is it possible to remember fictional characters more than real people?

Jacob Frank’s story was one that I enjoyed from the very beginning. That’s why I spent many years telling it. It’s extraordinary, remarkable, and revolutionary. Jacob Frank’s followers are remarkably freed within a few generations. It is a social change that preceded the one in France. I was also drawn to the idea of ​​showing another Poland – Poland as a large multicultural, multiethnic society in close contact with its neighbors on all sides.

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