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  • Writer's pictureAlan Bray

I Am, I Said - Primeval and Other Times

The title—Primeval and Other Times—refers to a central concept in fiction, time, although the word can have more than one meaning. Each vignette in the book is entitled “The Time of (someone or something),” which seems to indicate time as a discrete period, not as a philosophical concept. These time periods follow a generally linear path in that they begin in the year 1914 and end around 1980—based on the ages of some of the characters, although, as we shall see, it is not a straight shot to the end. (actually the book begins in an imperfect tense time that could be any time, with its description of the village).

How is the concept of time handled?

Well, as a guide, I suppose we should look at verb tense.

The first vignette is in the present tense, although as I have suggested, this is really “outside” of linear time. “Primeval is the place at the center of the universe.”

The second vignette, shifts to simple past. “In the summer of 1914, two of the Tsar’s brightly uniformed soldiers came for Michal on horseback.”

The third vignette gives us “The Time of Misia’s Angel,” Misia being the daughter of Genowefa, whose story is presented in the second vignette.

Paying attention?

Here, we have a shift to from simple past to simple present tense: “The angel saw Misia’s birth in a different way from Kumerka the midwife. An angel generally sees everything in a different way. Angels perceive the world not through the physical forms which it keeps producing and destroying, but through the meaning and soul of those forms.”


You could argue, how does Ms. Tokarchuk even know about angels? How can she write with so much authority about them?

This is fiction, best beloved. She can write whatever she wants.

What effect does this have? (this being, the use of different verb tenses).

It marks a difference between the characters whom the storyteller is telling us about, and the storyteller itself who exists outside of time.


That’s the implication. Mortal and immortal beings vs. the narrator. Do angels make use of the simple past tense?

I don’t know, my friend. I don’t know.

Every time there is a shift to present tense in this book, we are cued that we are reading a commentary by the narrator. And the characters—including God—give no sign of being aware of the narrator.

In “The Time of the Virgin Mary of Jeszkotle,” we read, “Enclosed in the icon’s decorative frame, the Virgin Mary of Jeszkotle had a limited view of the church.” Here, we’ve got a non-human entity presented in simple past.

In “The Time of Misia’s Grinder,” which is a story about a treasured object that Misia has, we read: “People think they live more intensely than animals, than plants, and especially than things…Misia’s grinder came into being because of someone’s hands combining wood, china, and brass into a single object.”

So, another verb tense shift in a story about a non-human object.

Mr. Big Shot, so every time we read a passage in present tense, it’s the narrator’s voice?

I supposes, best beloved. The narrator is making a comment about the characters who exist in time, and this comment is from a place out of time.

Thanks, that’s really clear.


Is the narrator an immortal being?

For the purposes of this book, yes.

“Grinders grind, and that is why they exist. But no one knows what the grinder means in general. Perhaps the grinder is a splinter off some total, fundamental law of transformation…”

Yup, present tense, narrator speaking. Our theory checks out.

Your theory.

In “The Time of Dipper the Drowned Man,” we have a story about a dead person’s soul that hangs out around Primeval. It begins in simple past tense. “Trapped in his drunken body, his intoxicated soul, a soul that hadn’t been absolved, with no map of the road onwards to God, remained like a dog by the body going cold in the bushes.” Then a shift: “Such a body is blind and helpless:” another shift: “So in its confusion Dipper’s soul thought that it was still Dipper.”

Hold up. This blog is in present tense, right?


Does that mean it’s the narrator’s voice?

Um, yes. It is. But you’re misunderstanding things. Not everything written in present tense is in a narrator’s voice, just in Primeval. And this blog.


Here’s an interesting case. “The Time of God” begins, “It is strange that God, who is beyond the limits of time, manifests himself within time and its transformations.” Then a shift: “In the summer of 1939, God was in everything all around, so rare and unusual things happened.”

Huh, so God, who is beyond time, must manifest himself in the simple past tense.

At least in this book.

Till next time, my dears.


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