Tokarczuk’s Nobel is good news for Polish liberals ahead of Sunday’s vote

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk attends a press conference in Bielefeld, Germany, 10 October 2019. The Nobel Prize in Literature for 2018 is awarded to Tokarczuk, the Swedish Academy announced on 10 October 2019. [Stringer/EPAEFE]

Olga Tokarczuk wins the Nobel Prize for literature! This news electrifies Poland for a day, providing a short break from the political campaigning ahead of Sunday’s elections. With this award, Europeans can see how strong, powerful, but most of all, resourceful, liberal Poland is, writes Piotr Maciej Kaczyński.

Piotr Maciej Kaczyński is a political commentator and blogger on Polish and European affairs, as well as a trainer on the EU decision-making process.

The 13 October vote is considered by the right, the centre and the left as the most important election in a generation. Liberals and conservatives alike are canvassing to bring as many voters as possible.

The turnout is expected to break all known records. Jarosław Kaczyński travels the country to tell his supporters: “we are in a minority” to try to mobilise supporters to cast their ballot. After all, Mr Kaczyński has a reason to worry.

His PiS party is leading the polls with support between 40 and 48%, way ahead of the opposition. But the opposition, scattered among three parties, could outmanoeuvre the ruling party. The outcome of the vote is hanging on some 2%.

Against this picture of a divided country, Polish liberals are winning international appraisals like rarely before. Paweł Pawlikowski’s Ida swept the European Film Awards a couple of years ago and was the first Oscar for a Polish film in the history of the American Academy.

Pawlikowski won another Oscar nomination (and an EFA award) for his beautiful black-and-white Cold War. Now Olga Tokarczuk receives a Nobel Prize for literature. All against the PiS better judgement.

A few days ago, Piotr Gliński, Poland’s conservative culture minister and vice-prime minister, admitted publicly he had started reading but never finished any of Tokaczuk’s books. Today he tweets his congratulations and a promise “to return to the unfinished earlier volumes of the Nobel laureate”.

Olga Tokarczuk is an acclaimed author not only in the Polish and English language. The Nobel committee recognises her “narrative imagination that with encyclopedic passion represents the crossing of boundaries as a form of life”. Her books are popular across the Old Continent. This prize will raise her profile further.

But Ms Tokarczuk is not only an author. She is also an activist. A participant in the gay pride marches, which are political manifestations in Poland rather than love parades. A vocal advocate for women rights, animal rights and a worried citizen of the world because of the climate crisis.

The world she creates in her books is mythical, mystical and a key to understand the liberal side of Poland today. Her Poland is a “violation of the myth of a homogenous Catholic nation”.

Poland without culture does not exist, argues Tokarczuk. Culture without history is impossible. Polish history is a 1,000 years of multi-national interplay. Poland is a place where Poles, Jews, Germans, Ukrainians, Russians, Lithuanians, Belarussians and many, many others co-existed for centuries.

It’s a Poland that is open, progressive, tolerant. Poland that is a welcoming home for those who seek refuge from the world. That’s a liberal Poland that Tokarczuk represents. That’s the liberal Poland that today wins a Nobel Prize with her. That’s the liberal Poland that is trying to face off the traditionalists of Law and Justice.

Mr Gliński, the culture minister, denied financial contribution to the Mountains of Literature, which is a locally based literature festival in Kłodzko Valley and is co-organised by the Nobel laureate.

The petty people of PiS. When Ida won the Oscar Beata Szydło, now an MEP, complained that the movie did not “promote Poland, in fact, it portrayed the negative image”.

The liberal, open Poland has been largely forgotten in Brussels. The image of the country is in tatters; some Council diplomats admit off the record that fewer and fewer people want to engage with Poles.

With this award, however, you can see how strong, powerful, but most of all, resourceful, the liberal Poland is. Welcome to the modern Polish soul. Grab a Tokarczuk volume before it needs to be reprinted. Around one million copies of her books have been sold in Poland to date.

Nobel Prize is greatly cherished in Poland. Ms Tokarczuk receives it as the fifth Polish author, following in the footsteps of Henryk Sienkiewicz, Władysław Reymont, Czesław Miłosz and Wisława Szymborska.

All Polish Nobel laureates were important voices in the political and societal debate, and Ms Tokarczuk does not shy away from the public eye either.

With this award, the liberals in Poland and in Europe gain a new prominent figure and Ms Tokarczuk, born in 1962, joins Lech Wałęsa as the only living Nobel laureates in Poland.

Subscribe to our newsletters