If the entirety of the world were condensed into a small village, and the human population into a few dozen characters, one would approach the town of Primeval. It is a world where the human, the natural, and the supernatural come together to play out the 20th-century. The world of Primeval is a look at Poland through this time, but is easily applicable to the world as a whole. It does not only show the literal events that have happened; it delves into humanity’s connection with nature, religion, and objects – with the underlying possibility of the supernatural. Primeval and Other Times is a prose-poem of sorts. It creates an atmosphere, a time, and a place that are not only meant to be understood at a linguistic level, but through the mystical and immediate emotions certain passages evoke. This Primeval and Other Times review will contain no spoilers.
We are introduced to the town of Primeval (Prawiek in the original language) through the eyes of a generation of characters, and by the apparent consciousness of natural and supernatural phenomena. Genowefa is a woman married to the owner of a mill, Michal, who is sent off to war and is not seen for years. While he is gone, she gives birth to Misia who, during the birth, is given an angel who watches over her throughout life. Cornspike is another character we meet, an orphaned child who sells herself to any men of the village who will pay. Like Genowefa, she also becomes pregnant, but loses the child after her vision of giving birth to a boy who turns a twig into a small snake. The supernatural and the real are blended in these scenes the same way which their characters would believe: no explicitly or scientifically observable mystical force, but an agent that is felt working behind the scenes.
Tokarczuk also gives agency and consciousness to natural and man-made objects these characters live beside or possess. She breaks down humanity’s narrowly defined idea of what it means to be conscious. Misia’s coffee grinder, an object picked up by Michal on his way home from the war, does not necessarily think, but realizes its purpose and feels itself move through the century. A series of mushrooms and their mycelial branchings knowledgeably root themselves in place and time, react with the sun so their fruits will sprout, and feast on that which is decaying. These objects, just as the supernatural angels and visions that are present, once again work behind the scenes, interacting with humanity, and co-existing within the cycle of time in Primeval.
This cycle of time is the near entirety of the 20th-century. It takes these original characters (and then their children and grandchildren) through the World Wars – wherein they experience massacres and occupations – through the modernization of society, and through the desire of later generations to escape. The novel gives the universality of the human experience through these times by showing how cultures would either experience or inflict certain war crimes or how children may wish to leave their birthplace that their families were psychologically unable to flee. However, the novel also gives more individualistic and specific experiences that may be particular to Poland and to Tokarczuk herself. There is the occupation of Poland, the gender dynamics within this type of society, the interaction between the people and their land. And all through these universal and specific points in time, the mushrooms and lime trees are moving alongside them in their own semi-conscious way; the angels, ghosts, and parallel possibilities of time float in and out of their lives, unobserved but not without effect.
Primeval and Other Times is not driven by plot or character development – it is an impressionistic portrait of the many facets of life which weave themselves between person and place, plant and ghost, angel and object. Tokarczuk asks the reader to attempt to distinguish the line between natural and supernatural – to place humanity somewhere in the midst of these two ideas and decide what our place between them suggests (that is if we do only lie within one point of the spectrum). It does not separate us from these other ideas because, despite how humanity tends to think, we are not any more or less important, any grander of a miracle, than they are.
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