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For Poland, winning a Nobel Prize is cause for conflict

When Olga Tokarczuk of Poland won the prize for Literature on Thursday, the reaction was as divided as the country itself. To some, she is an eloquent writer who captures Poland's tragic and inspiring 20th-century history. To others, she is a traitor

By Marc Santora and Joanna Berendt
Published: Oct 12, 2019

For Poland, winning a Nobel Prize is cause for conflictFILE — The Polish author Olga Tokarczuk in Wroclaw, Poland on July 30, 2018. When Tokarczuk won the Nobel Prize in Literature, the reaction was as divided as is the country itself. To some, she is an eloquent writer who captures Poland’s tragic history. To others, she is a traitor. (Maciek Nabrdalik/The New York Times)

WARSAW, Poland — Winning a Nobel Prize in literature is usually a cause for celebration in the writer’s home country, a point of pride and a justification for a bit of patriotic pomp. But in Poland, where the nation is engaged in a bitter and consequential battle over the question of what it means to be Polish, the prize has led to controversy, instead.

When Olga Tokarczuk of Poland won it on Thursday, the reaction was as divided as is the country itself. To some, she is an eloquent writer who captures Poland’s tragic and inspiring 20th-century history. To others, she is a traitor.

Tokarczuk has documented Poland’s long history of pluralism and ethnic mixing at the same time as her government has cast migrants as a mortal danger to the nation. She has denounced attacks on gays and globalists, even as leaders in Poland’s governing Law and Justice Party have sought to convince voters that a “rainbow plague” backed by decadent Western leaders presented an existential threat to both families and the nation itself.

So with national elections scheduled to take place in Poland on Sunday, perhaps it was not surprising that Poland’s competing factions sought to use the prize announcement to bolster their own sides.

Rafal Ziemkiewicz, a right-wing journalist, took to Twitter to excoriate Tokarczuk and other artists, including Oscar-winning director Pawel Pawlikowski.

“With all due respect, they owe their awards to the fact that Western left-wing salons want to support Polish agents in the fight against the ‘nationalist regime,’” Ziemkiewicz wrote. “And great, take it, just don’t spit on Poland.”

Those who oppose Poland’s government and its attempts to shape the cultural landscape with nationalist dogma hoped to use the moment to show the world that Poland would not be defined by the government.

Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council and a critic of Poland’s current government, made a point of noting on Twitter that he read her books “from start to finish.”

“What a joy and pride!” he wrote. “I will boast about it in Brussels as a Pole and a faithful reader.”

He signed it with a grinning emoji.

Tokarczuk said that she would like to dedicate her award to Poles. “We are just a few days before the elections, very important elections. They can change the future of this country,” she told journalists at a news conference in Bielefeld, Germany. “I would like to say to my friends in Poland: Let’s make good choices, vote for democracy.”

Tokarczuk became Poland’s sixth winner of the Nobel Prize in literature and only the 15th woman to receive the distinction since 1901.

She is best known for works such as “Primeval and Other Times,” “The Book of Jacob,” “Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead” and “Flights,” an experimental novel for which she received in 2018 the Man Booker International Prize for translated fiction.

Even before Law and Justice began trying to remake the cultural landscape, Tokarczuk was warning about the desire of certain politicians to erase the darker moments of Polish history.

“We invented a history of Poland as a tolerant, open country, a country that has not been tainted by any atrocities committed against its minorities,” she said on an interview with state television in 2015. “I think we will have to face our own history and try to rewrite it a little, without hiding all the terrible things we did as colonizers, a national majority who suppressed minorities, as slave owners or murderers of Jews.”

When Tokarczuk was receiving an award for her work in the city of Walbrzych in 2016, Law and Justice officials ostentatiously left the room.

Last week, when Tokarczuk, was honored in southeast Poland, where she lives, local Law and Justice politicians objected. Krystyna Sliwinska, a Law and Justice councilwoman in Klodzko, said that the writer “slanders Poles” and is lying about their history and should not receive such a distinction.

“Who invented the history of Poland that you question? What are those false facts? Ms. Tokarczuk speaks on behalf of all Poles as ‘we,’ but what right does she have to generalize like that?” she asked at a council meeting. “This false message is translated into foreign languages and goes out into the world and the awards follow.”

At the ceremony, Tokarczuk responded.

“I try to do my job and be a decent person, and a decent person has the courage to face what is not necessarily pleasant, what is perhaps dark and troublesome,” she said. “If we refuse to raise our visor and face it, then we will face challenges to our own intellectual honesty, but also to our own moral decency toward other people.”

©2019 New York Times News Service

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