House of Day, House of Night (1998) is set in the fictional small town of Nowa Ruda in Silesia, a region in south-west Poland with sections in the Czech Republic and Germany. It was part of Germany until after World War II when the bulk of the region was transferred back to Poland. The unique history of the region is an integral part of the novel. House of Day, House of Night is not really a novel in the traditional sense. It is a collection of related short narratives, interspersed with vignettes on rural life and villages, biographies of saints, recipes and other observations. Taken together, the collection describes the people, the life and the history of Nowa Ruda.
Many characters populate this book. There is the narrator, who lives with her husband R on their small-scale farm. She collects and analyses dreams.
If you do it regularly, if you carefully read dozens – hundred , even – of other people’s dreams every morning, it’s easy to start seeing the similarities between them… There are nights when everyone seems to dream of running away, nights of war, night of babies being born, nights of dubious love-making….. Each morning you could string these dreams together like beads and end up with a unique and beautiful necklace. Based on the most frequently recurring motifs, you could give the nights tiles, ‘The night of feeding the weak and infirm, ‘The night things fell from the sky…’The night precious things got lost’. Maybe you could name the days after the previous night’s dreams.
And there are sections of the book titled after these dreams! Other characters include the wise and old Marta; the drunk Marek Marek; Krysia who goes in search of quite literally the man in her dreams. There are Germans who return home to Nowa Ruda to die. There are numerous mushroom recipes and an entire biography of the medieval saint Kummernis. There are quasi-essay observations on rhubarbs, comets, and nails. The list goes on and on. Surrealism, magic-realism, simple prose are all utilized in the telling of various stories. There are heartbreaking and tragic moments, comic vignettes and the occasionally wisecrack from Marta. This book has virtually no plot. But the author, Olga Tokarczuk, quite inventively fashions out a portrait of a people and their town. House of Day, House of Night is a unique, original and a very well-written book. It is translated from the Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones and was shortlisted for the 2004 IMPAC Award.
Yet, in spite of all of the above, I did not emotionally connect with the book. And at first I was puzzled by this. This book, on paper, has all the elements and requirements of a literary read that should appeal to me. I’ve written previously about my love for perfumes. House of Day, House of Night is my Chanel No.5 of books. I appreciate how original and magnificent a creation it is. I admire the perfume when it’s on others but it just doesn’t work with my chemistry. I feel the same way about this book. And therefore I do recommend the book.
I’m a fan of eastern and central European literature. However, I’m more familiar with the poets, especially Milosz and Symborska, of Poland. So I’m very glad to have come across Olga Tokarczuk. Born in 1962, she is one of the most successful writers of her generation and has won numerous awards both in and outside Poland. Another book of hers, Primeval and Other Times, was translated and published this year and I intend to read that as well.
Have you read any Polish literature? Please recommend a Polish writer!