You know that feeling when you’re waiting at an airport, trying to guess where other are from and where they are going? You start writing in your notebook, observing the man across from you, who is writing in his notebook, observing you… is he writing about you?
Your partner and child disappear from the tiny island where you were on holiday together. Three days later, they are back. But are they the same?
Chopin’s heart was buried in his homeland, taken from Paris to Warsaw by coach and smuggled across the border under his sister’s crinoline skirts.
When Tsar Peter I had a collection of rare anatomical specimens shipped from the Netherlands, there was just one problem. They were pickled in brandy, and the sailors began to drink it…
These are just some of a loosely-woven collection of short stories, fragments and observations on the geography of the body and the land, interspersed with splendid maps, perfect for reading disjointedly as you pass through the torture of airport security and waiting at the gate. Which is just what I did, on holiday a few weeks ago.
In 2008 Olga Tokarczuk’s Bieguni (The Runners) got Poland’s top book award, the Nike Prize. It’s on the way to being translated into over a dozen languages, but not into English – yet. Her regular translator into English, Antonia Lloyd-Jones, has translated from the opening, however.
Tokarczuk is that rare thing, a writer who is genuinely popular with both readers and critics. You can get a taste of her writing about travel here or about other things from Twisted Spoon, who published her Prawiek i inne czasy (Primeval and Other Times) in English.
Here’s my translation of one of my favourite extracts from Bieguni (pp.199-200):
The tongue is the strongest human muscle
There are countries where people speak English. But they don’t speak like us; we have our own language hidden in our hand luggage, in our make-up bags; we only use English when we’re travelling, in foreign countries and with foreigners. It’s hard to imagine, but English is their real language! Often their only one. They don’t have anything to turn to or return to in moments of doubt.
How lost they must feel in a world where every instruction, every word of the stupidest song, restaurant menu, the most trivial business correspondence, the buttons in the lift, are in their private language. When they speak, they can be understood by anyone at any moment, their notes probably have to be specially encrypted. Wherever they find themselves, everyone has unlimited access to them, everyone and everything.
There are already projects, I’ve heard, to give them protected status, perhaps even to assign them some small language, from those dead ones that no-one needs anymore, so that they could have something for themselves, of their own.