A to Z Challenge: P is for “Primeval and Other Times”

PFor today’s A to Z Challenge post I have a Polish book, but a book that has actually been translated into English, so if you get interested in it, you’ll be able to check it out.

I first came across “Primeval and Other Times” (in Polish: ”Prawiek i inne czasy”) by Olga Tokarczuk in my high school class. It was the fourth year, we were trying to catch up with the material before the finals came, so we didn’t cover much of Polish contemporary fiction, and since I already was diving into speculative fiction, I didn’t have much interest in it. But an excerpt from “Primeval and Other Times” was used as an example in a class (I can hardly recall what it was used for, something related with the style), and it looked very promising, but wrapped up in the preparation to finals, I just remembered the title and the author. And, after all, it wasn’t my genre, so I didn’t lose much by not reading it, right?

As you can guess, I was wrong, but I didn’t learn it until much later, when I finally purchased the book.

“Primeval and Other Times” tells a story of a… village. Primeval is a settlement somewhere in the middle of Poland, and we first get a glimpse of it and its inhabitants in 1914. As the story progresses, in neat small chapters, the reader gets a chance not only to follow the people who live there, and then their children, and grandchildren, but can also observe how times pass, how wars and communism come and go, how mindsets change, not only with the world changing, but also with the characters’ age.

But the book is much more than just a family saga spanning across the 20th century. It’s also a story of life and death, of love and of sacrifice, of quiet tragedies and small joys. All of them described in a beautiful manner, without unnecessary drama or over-exaggeration, and therefore eliciting strong emotions within the reader. It is also, in a way, a philosophical essay on the passing of time and the life cycle.

Being all that, “Primeval and Other Times” still remains a fairly easy read, gripping the reader the story it weaves and offering interesting characters. With its style, one of a gentle fairy tale or magical realism, it flows smoothly through different perspectives and ideas, even as unusual as… apple and pear trees one. Did you ever wonder how tree “perceive” time? Tokarczuk might give you an answer.

One of the Polish editions of the book.

Even though it’s set in Poland, it definitely has a broader appeal, and doesn’t require an in-depth cultural knowledge to understand the events (though basic knowledge of Europe’s history in the 20th century is helpful).

“Primeval and Other Times” charmed me with its style and intricate structure, allowing to tell a story spanning for almost a century without overwhelming the reader, and I think if you give it a chance, it might charm you too.

And since this book was translated into English, it makes me wonder: do you read books that weren’t originally written in English? Are you interested in finding them or are they too “foreign” for your reader’s taste?

Joanna Maciejewska

Joanna Maciejewska is a fantasy and science fiction author who enjoys all things SFF: books, movies, and video games. Her short stories appeared in magazines and anthologies in Polish and in English. Her epic fantasy adventure series, starting with By the Pact, is available in ebook and paperback at all major retailers.

This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. sjhigbee

    To my shame, I have to admit to not actively hunting for them – but I have read a few over the years. I think you are very much in the hands of the translator and if the English clunks, then it tends to detract from the book. And no… I generally won’t persevere:(.

    1. melfka

      I agree, some of the books I’ve read in Polish didn’t “taste” as well because the language felt stilted. And life is too short to read books as a punishment, so I can totally understand why you don’t persevere. Neither would I. 😉

  2. Debs Carey

    If all a book has to offer is the lyrical beauty of its writing, then I can see that it wouldn’t work. But I’ve been able to get past odd writing if the story held my interest. I certainly don’t avoid any book I know is a translation and am considering reading the candidates for the Best Translation award in the future.

    Debs Carey

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