Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 11, 2019

The Knight, a short story by Olga Tokarczuk, translated by Jennifer Croft

Well, it’s not often I get to read the work of a Nobel Prize winning author the day after she is awarded the prize!

I subscribe to a site called Words without Borders, a source of very interesting writing from all sort of sources.  Today, their newsletter contained a short story by Olga Tokarczuk, familiar to many readers for her novel Drive Your Plow [sic] Over the Bones of the Dead, translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones or House of Day, House of Night which was shortlisted for the IMPAC Literary Award.  But #FailingToKeepUp I haven’t read either of these, so I was pleased to have a chance to catch up a little bit…

The Knight is a short story by Olga Tokarczuk and translated from Polish by Jennifer Croft.  This is the blurb from Words without Borders:

Olga Tokarczuk, who first appeared in our pages in 2005 with an excerpt from her wrenching tale of wartime survival, Final Stories, translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones. She then returned in 2008 with this short story, “The Knight,” translated by Jennifer Croft. Tokarczuk’s explorations of relationships under pressure, whether political or internal, combine a keen sense of character with a sure hand at narrative to capture the essence of humanity. As a couple’s alienation plays out over a chessboard, Tokarczuk’s deft portrayal of feints and attacks maps a marriage at stalemate.

The opening lines with that single word ‘snatched’ show the reader where the story is going from the outset:

At first she tried struggling with the locks, but they were obviously not in sync, because when she managed to turn the key in one of them, the other stayed locked—and vice versa. The wind came in gusts off the sea, winding her wool scarf around her face. Finally he set down both bags in the driveway and snatched the keys out of her hand. He managed to get the door open immediately.

Next thing, he’s ticking her off for sweeping the sand off the deck. He has decided they won’t be using it at that time of the year, and he has decided that he’s the one who gets to decide, and he’s the one who gets to tell her what she should be doing.

He puts the TV on immediately, and she protests and wants to say something else as well—but she doesn’t.

Though the reader’s sympathies lie with the woman because we know more about her inner thoughts, she annoys him too.  He hates it when she smokes, and he doesn’t say anythng.  Because though their marriage is stale, and their irritability levels are high, there’s enough good will to try and make their first night at the beach house a good one, so they don’t risk the second bottle of wine and they play chess. She lets him win, and he knows she let him.  They decide to play a more serious game, one that might last for days…

In 6000+ words, the story plays out over their walks on the beach, the loss of the knight from the chessboard, and their inconclusive night together in bed.  Their mutual hostilities have causes big and small, but the most telling, I thought, was her dislike of the way he photographs her all the time, objectifying her and not really seeing her as a person.

There’s not much in this story to show why Tokarczuk is a Nobel laureate.  #DuckingForCover Stories of marriages bad, mad or sad, are a bit of yawn IMO, and they’re all much like each other.  The Nobel citation reads ‘for a narrative imagination that with encyclopaedic passion represents the crossing of boundaries as a form of life.’ I’m not entirely sure that I know what that means, but one day when I get round to reading one of her books, I might find out!

If you would like to read The Knight too, follow this link to Words without Borders (and subscribe to their site while you’re at it).


Responses

  1. I read it. It reminded me why I don’t like short stories-if they’re good enough to involve you, then you feel dissatisfied when they end. I think he liked her more than she knew, and he wasn’t always bossy (My male defensiveness probably). And I’d definitely rather read Murnane.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yup, exactly.
      And yes to Murnane as well.
      But you know, they announced something that indicated that they were not interested in the Anglosphere so that was the end of Murnane’s chances.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Funny. I am reading this as I lie in my hotel bed in Poland. How appropriate. Must catch the bus soon. 🤠🐧

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  3. Her books are marvellous – I’ve read both Drive Your Plow and Flights and each was remarkable and individual and memorable, and I can recommend them both! I suspect she’s been better known in the non-English speaking until recently. I haven’t read any of her short works yet, but I’m certainly keen on exploring more!

    (Incidentally, the ‘plow’ probably doesn’t need a sic as the title is a quote from Blake’s “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” and so I guess they spelled it like that back them! :D)

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    • I think it’s such a shame that her achievement has been tainted by the Academy’s choice for 2019!
      Hmm, yes, maybe Blake did, though not in the edition I have, and besides, we can’t help it, the eyes see plow and we think it rhymes with slow!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I was about to comment that I didn’t know what ‘encyclopaedic passion’ meant, then you said it yourself! I listened to a radio interview this morning about the Prize winners, and agreed with the view that the two choices hardly represented the diversity that the Academy claimed it was going to aim for this time: still Eurocentric. I’m pretty queasy too about the choice of Handke, but that’s another story. Blake’s Proverb actually includes ‘cart’ before the ‘plow’ in the full quotation. OED online has an interesting discussion of the word’s etymology, coming to no positive conclusion. It seems the ‘accepted spelling’ “plough” dated from around 1700 – but of course spelling was far from standardised until much later, so Blake could either have been using a form familiar to him locally, or he was just being his usual idiosyncratic self. That -gh ending is usually an indication of a Middle English spelling shift from OE -h, which approximates in most cases to the sound rather like -ch in modern Scots words like ‘loch’. When Webster set about trying to standardise American English orthography from the early 19C, as is well known he tended to opt for the version of problematically spelt words that were deliberately differentiated from the loathsome British English – often tidying up spellings that simply didn’t represent pronunciation (hence -our became -or; ‘centre’ became ‘center’, etc.) Spelling as a political act – in Blake and in Webster!

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  5. That comment was becoming essay-length, so here’s a PS. The OED entry for ‘plough’ and its etymology includes a suggestion that it doesn’t appear in Scandinavian languages; Norwegian has the word ‘ar’ for small plough. I wondered if this was connected with English ‘arable’, but apparently not – that derives from OFr and Latin, apparently. Apologies for the etymological digression

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    • No, no, it’s fascinating, and what you say about spelling being political is what appeals to me most of all. I’m using Duolingo to learn Latin and to back up my French classes each week, and through the discussion boards you can tell that there is a lot of exasperation about the American spellings and vocabulary because of course since it’s a computer doing the corrections you get marked wrong if you don’t learn American English and spelling along with whatever language you’re really trying to learn.
      But while the brains behind it do allow for some variation, so that you can get biscuit correct as well as cookie, all the people who are using Duolingo to learn *English* — all the refugees, for example — are learning American English and will forever spell it favor and mom &c.

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      • Spelling and vocabulary choices are of course highly political – as so many linguistic matters are. Shibboleth comes to mind. Spell check tried to ‘correct’ my spelling of ‘plow’ as I have it set to Brit Eng. I try not to get prescriptive about some usages, but can’t help a slight cringe when (mostly younger) people respond to the polite greeting ‘how are you?’ with ‘Good’. I know, I should get out more.

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        • I think it matters to us in Australia because we seem to have escaped British cultural imperialism only to be caught up in the American version of it…

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  6. This is a very simple response – thank you Lisa for posting the story. I thought it was wonderful.

    Liked by 1 person


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