WARSAW, Poland — The Swedish Academy’s decision to bestow the 2018 Nobel Prize in literature on Polish author Olga Tokarczuk has given a rare morale boost to liberal Poles only three days before a national election that is likely to be won by the country’s right-wing populist party.
Tokarczuk, 57, is a literary celebrity in Poland, whose reputation has risen fast in the English-speaking world, particularly after she won the Man Booker International prize in 2018 for her novel “Flights.” She won the Nobel for what the prize committee said was “a narrative imagination that with encyclopedic passion represents the crossing of boundaries as a form of life.”
But she is not loved by all in her native land.
She has been criticized by Polish conservatives — and received death threats — for criticizing aspects of the country’s past, including its episodes of anti-Semitism. Some of her works have celebrated the rich ethnic heritage of Poland, which was a cultural and religious melting pot before the Nazi German genocide during World War II and the postwar resettlement of ethnic populations.
Her very image, with a dreadlock style known as a “plica Polonica” or Polish tangle, which has roots in Polish history, makes her stand out as a progressive icon as the country’s leadership seeks to put its conservative mark on the nation.
She was photographed recently at a gay pride parade in her hometown of Wroclaw holding small rainbow flags at a time when the ruling Law and Justice party has been depicting the gay rights movement as a mortal threat to Poland’s culture.
Just this week, Law and Justice leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski lashed out during a campaign stop at filmmakers and other cultural elites who tried to “destroy Poland’s reputation” with their explorations of Polish crimes, including the participation of some in killing Jews during World War II. He said that under his party, cultural elites “are no longer working for our enemies.”
“Those who work (for the enemy) are being stigmatized and will be stigmatized further,” Kaczynski said.
Those remarks sparked sharp criticism by opposition politicians, while some found poetic justice in the world’s most prestigious literary award going to Tokarczuk.
“Olga Tokarczuk is an outstanding representative of the elites hated by Kaczynski,” said Tomasz Lis, the editor of Newsweek Polska.
On Thursday, however, the country’s conservative authorities had only words of praise for Tokarczurk, with Polish President Andrzej Duda calling it a “great day for Polish literature.”
Culture Minister Piotr Glinski, who said in recent days that he tried to read her books but just couldn’t finish them, said he would try harder now. And he was happy to claim her accomplishment for Poland.
“A Nobel Prize is a clear sign that Polish culture is well appreciated in the world,” Glinski tweeted. “Congratulations!”
Speaking Thursday to the Polish broadcaster TVN after winning the prize, Tokarczuk said “not everyone needs to read me.”
She said she was “terribly happy and proud” that her novels, which describe events in small towns in Poland “can be read as universal and can be important for people around the world.”
Law and Justice is leading opinion polls ahead of the country’s parliamentary election on Sunday, its popularity boosted by generous state spending and an assertive Poland-first foreign policy.
Two Nobel Prizes in literature — one for 2019 and one for last year — were announced Thursday after the 2018 literature award was postponed following sex abuse allegations that had rocked the Swedish Academy. The recipient of this year’s award was Austrian writer Peter Handke.
Monika Scislowska in Warsaw contributed.
Vanessa Gera, The Associated Press