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  • Writer's pictureAlan Bray

Primeval And Other Times

This week, a new story, Olga Tokarchuk’s 1996 Primeval and Other Times, originally written in Polish and translated to English by Antonia Lloyd-Jones in 2010. It is set in the fictitious Polish village of Prawiek—translated as Primeval.

Primeval—of or resembling the earliest ages in the history of the world.

The novel tells the story of the inhabitants of Primeval over eight decades, beginning in 1914. Ms. Tokarchuk has said that the story is based on tales her maternal grandmother told her when she was a child.

Primeval has been described as a fragmentary novel in that it’s made up of some sixty vignettes that could be read as complete unto themselves or as parts of a bigger whole—a chronicle of a particular place—Primeval—during particular times. There are many notable fragmentary novels, Sterne’s Tristram Shandy and Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, to name two.

Each vignette in Primeval is entitled The Time of (a character’s name), so the novel begins with The Time of Primeval. The first sentence is “Primeval is the place at the center of the universe.” This first section presents a geographical description of the town and its two rivers, along with a naming of the four archangels who guard the four directions of the town.

Yes, you read that right. Archangels. Four of them.

Rapheal, Gabriel, Michael, and Uriel.

Archangels appear in most western religions: Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and are generally regarded as the highest order of angels. It is perhaps significant that these fellows guard the borders of the town of Primeval. What is their purpose—to keep out evil?

We shall see. Other vignettes in the book concern the Virgin Mary and God, both of whom appear as characters, so the archangels are in good company.

But you say, does the presence of archangels mean that Ms. Tokarchuk has written a religious novel, that she wants us to accept literally that heavenly beings are guarding the town? Is she proselytizing?

Uh, I don’t think so, best beloved.

Well, then, you counter, are we talking allegory?

An allegory is a “story, picture, or other piece of art that uses symbols to convey a hidden or ulterior meaning, typically a moral or political one.” In its most simple and concise definition, an allegory is when a piece of visual or narrative media uses one thing to “stand in for” another.

Yeah but, you complain, then what’s the difference between allegory and metaphor? Sounds like a metaphor.

‘Kay. Metaphor is a rhetorical device, like simile…or metonymy. Allegory can be loosely defined as a sustained metaphor used in film, the visual arts, or literature. It is often used to give abstract ideals (Truth, Beauty, etc) a concrete form, sometimes by personifying these ideals as characters within a story. Allegories are systems of metaphors.

In Primeval, one of the first metaphors the reader encounters concerns the confluence of the two rivers in the village, the White and the Black. They flow separately but join together at a point where the mill is located, an important site in the story. Two separate streams, joined. This is a nice expression of one of the book’s major themes, the intermingling of Jewish and Christian people.

There is an unnamed narrator who tells the stories in Primeval. The characters are not aware of this entity, who knows a lot about them. Even our friends the archangels don’t know who the narrator is.

An example, please.

In a vignette entitled, “The Time of Cornspike,” we are presented with a tale of one of the major characters, Cornspike, who lives alone and is regarded by the other villagers as a wanton woman.

“In the spring of 1927 a sprig of masterwort grew in front of Cornspike’s cottage. Cornspike observed it from the moment it put a thick, fat, stiff shoot out of the earth…What now, my fine fellow, Cornspike said to it ironically. You’ve pushed yourself so far, you’ve climbed so high into the sky that now your seeds are going to germinate in the thatch, not in the ground.”

I know, I know, what’s masterwort?

A genus of herbaceous plants in the family Apiaceae, endemic to Central, Eastern and Southern Europe and the Caucasus. There are several species, which have aromatic roots, palmate leaves, and decorative flowers.

Mebbe you’re wondering but are too shy to say, is this masterwort plant a phallic symbol?

Well, yeah.

“And one night, when Cornspike had finally fallen asleep, a young man stood before her. He was tall and powerfully built. His arms and thighs looked as if they were made from polished wood. The glow of the moon illuminated him.

“I’ve been watching you through the window,” he said.

“I know. The smell of you disturbs the senses.”

The young man came into the room and stretched out both hands to Cornspike. She snuggled in between them and pressed her face to the hard, powerful chest. He lifted her slightly so that their mouths could find each other. From under half closed eyelids, Cornspike saw his face—it was rough like the stem of a plant.”

Adult readers can guess what occurs with Cornspike and the plant man. The point, my dears, is the role of the narrator.

No, the point is they’re having sex.

A narrator is telling this story, it is unnamed and Cornspike is unaware of it. (Not sure about the plant guy). The narrator sets the scene. It’s the spring of 1927, a sprig of masterwort grows in front of her cottage. Then a “young man” appears before her—after she falls asleep. Is this a dream?

Some dream.

My point is that the narrator is the storyteller. It shows what the characters said and did—a selection of course. The narrator slices and dices “reality,” picking out certain elements to show a story. What is the story in this case? Cornspike cultivates a robust flowering plant in her garden, then dreams (?) that the plant becomes a man who has sex with her. What happens?

“…when the sky became gray and the birds began to sing. Then a shudder shook the masterwort, and his hard body froze still, like timber. The canopies began to rustle, and dry, prickly seeds showered down on Cornspike’s naked, exhausted body. Then the fair-haired youth went back outside, and Cornspike spent all day picking the aromatic grains from her hair.”

If Primeval were a realist novel, maybe this vignette could be framed as a dream. A lonely woman thinks a flowering plant is very attractive. She dreams that the plant becomes a handsome man who makes love to her. She wakes and perhaps through her open window, aromatic grains from the plant have become entangled in her hair.

But this is no realist novel.

Cornspike turns up pregnant by the plant guy..

Till next time.


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