Are You A Woman Or A Tree?
A lot of contemporary fiction can be viewed as a confluence of plot and character. An important concept is the character arc—the depiction of the transformation or inner journey of a character over the course of a story. Our old friend Aristotle talked about this. A classic story structure concerns a protagonist who begins as one sort of person, and as a result of conflict and developments in the story, transforms into someone different by the end. There are many variations on this as well as theories as to why these transformations are satisfying to readers. The classic coming of age tale shows the transformation of a character from adolescence to adulthood. A recent selection in this blog, Normal People, shows the transformation of a main character, Marianne, as she journeys from being a victim of abuse to an adult who can accept being esteemed by a partner. Perhaps the reason these stories satisfy us is because they present a message of hope, that, no matter how awful life is, we can change and grow into someone better.
What about Primeval my dears?
This story is a bit different as the main characters don’t transform much, or rather, they transform the same way that plants and trees do.
Indeed, this story is about people in a community who must adapt to quite dramatic and horrific events—two world wars, the Holocaust, the rise of an authoritarian regime in Poland. They do change from birth to death but only in ordinary ways. A tree grows from a seed to a maturity but remains a tree. The same is true for the characters in Primeval.
Let’s look at one such character, Genowefa, the first human presented. The “time” of Genowefa begins in 1914. She is the wife of Mical, who is drafted into the Russian army. Genowefa is pregnant and gives birth months later to Misia.
What is Genowefa like at the beginning?
“Genowefa knew no other world than Primeval, and no other wars but the brawls in the marketplace on Saturdays when the drunken men came out of Szlomo’s bar…So Genowefa imagined the war like a fight in the mud, puddles and litter, a fight in which everything is settled at once…”
In Mical’s absence, she runs the flour mill. “Once…she saw the boys carrying the sacks. They were naked to the waist, and their upper bodies were coated in flour, like big pretzels…The naked torsos riveted her gaze and made her feel anxious. She had to turn and look away.”
Genowefa takes a lover from among the young men working in the mill.
“…from then on…the hunger that would awaken would be even more powerful than ever before.”
Genowefa ends the affair when Mical returns from the war and she has another baby, although there are complications. Time passes, her daughter Misia, becomes an adult and marries Pawel Boski, whom Genowefa approves of. Then, in 1939, WWII begins. Genowefa (who must be in her late forties at this time), observes the Nazis murdering her Jewish neighbors. “She thought of Misia and the children (grandchildren). Her mouth went dry as she went to fetch the bucket.” She prays for help from the Virgin Mary. “It was all happening so quickly that Genowefa couldn’t comprehend the events she was witnessing.” More murders occur. “Genowefa’s legs gave way beneath her, so she had to kneel down.” She sees the young man who was her lover, dead. “She sat down beside him and never stood on her own legs again.”
My point in describing these passages is that Genowefa does change as she moves from young woman to a grandmother witnessing the Holocaust. Separated from her husband, she manages her sexuality by taking a lover. When she sees him killed, she develops what we would call psychosomatic symptoms—an inability to walk which necessitates considerable care and attention from her husband Mical. But these changes are fairly predictable ones for humans. She does not choose to have her husband drafted; she does not choose to witness the Nazis’ crimes. She can only react.
Here's a description of trees from the book:
“In the year of the apple, the trees draw from the earth the sour waters of underground rivers that have the power of change and motion. These waters contain the need to push, to grow and spread.…The time of the pear tree involves sucking sweet juices from the minerals…The trees come to a stop in their growing and relish the sweetness of pure existence, without moving, without developing.”
Sort of like Genowefa—sometimes she grows, sometimes she just exists.
Now, I don’t believe that Ms. Tokarchuk thinks Genowefa is a tree, but I do think she’s trying to show how humans are mostly creatures in the world, in the same way trees are. In much of contemporary fiction, human characters are generally treated as qualitatively different than plants and animals. They have a complex inner life which is shown in the story. In Primeval, we have situations like Cornspike having sex with a plant, and in this situation, no mention is made of what meaning Cornspike makes of this cross-species coupling. (is she surprised?) Likewise, Genowefa becomes unable to use her legs but there is no mention of what meaning she makes of this.
How then does Genowefa end up? What is the character’s arc?
The last we see of her, her husband has taken her chair outside—with her in it. “Then she looked at her own feet, knees, hips—they were just as far away and just as much not a part of her as the sand, fields, and garden. Her body was a broken figurine made of fragile, human material…I am a body, she said to herself…When she looked down the highway, she saw the dead returning…There were thousands of them. They were marching in uneven, broken ranks…She saw them all day, until evening, and the procession did not dwindle. They were still gliding past her when she closed her eyes. She knew God was watching them too. She could see His face—it was black, terrible, covered in scars.”
‘Kay. Adios Genowefa. I think the point is not so much that she transforms as a character but that she follows the human life cycle. The "arc" is predictable.
More about trees:
“Like all plants, the lime trees live an eternal dream, whose origin lies in the trees’ seeds. The dream does not grow or develop along with it but is always exactly the same. The trees are trapped in space, but not in time. They are liberated from them by their dream, which is eternal. Feelings do not grow in it, as in animals’ dreams. Nor do images appear in it, as they do in peoples’ dreams.
When a tree dies, its dream that has no meaning or impression is taken over by another tree. That is why trees never die. In ignorance of their own existence, they are liberated from time and death.”
I think this is a pretty good description of the human characters of Primeval, who are trapped in space but not time. They dream the book, or the book dreams them.
Thank you, Ms. Tokarchuck.
Next week, a new story.