(University College London)

Good People, Capitalist Networks and Impossible Flights in Nir Baram’s and Olga Tokarczuk’s Work“

In this paper I consider how Nir Baram and Olga Tokarczuk explore complicity and resistance, and the significance of a shift they make away from fiction in their approach to those themes.

The exploration of ethical compromise, how people become enmeshed in systems that they oppose and how they interpret their actions to themselves and others is at the heart of Baram’s Good People (2010). It is a historical novel about two brilliant young people becoming involved with the National Socialist and Stalinist regimes, but Baram is keen to emphasize the novel’s contemporary relevance. He values the ways in which readers have sought to interpret their own context through the novel’s themes. Baram’s interest in complicity and narrative continues in his subsequent novel, World Shadow (2013), which focusses on the all-dominating reach of capitalism. And in A Land Without Borders (2016), Baram turns away from fiction to consider complicity in relation to the West Bank and East Jerusalem. In all these works, Baram considers the responsibility of writers in fuelling discourses that contribute to violence and atrocity. Telling a good story is not aligned in his work with a positive outcome. On the contrary, he explores how central and effective it is for justifications of individual and institutional actions, state oppression and violence. Fiction’s value lies in its ability to offer a new perspective, to elicit ambivalent emotional responses, challenge the reader’s own complacency and encourage her to think about her own context. But to look to fiction as offering an expert view or to invest it with the potential for redemption, is to fall prey to the trap of nostalgia. By turning to non-fiction, he shifts from the realm of ethics, in which the very concepts of what determines the good is explored, to making a moral intervention, directing questions of complicity, personal responsibility and the possibility of protest to himself, Israelis and Palestinians. Baram places himself at the centre of his interrogation about complicity and the possibility of resistance.

Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead (2009) uses the form of a parody whodunit to consider the place of righteous anger in response to society’s complicity with the crime of eating meat and its violence against animals and the environment. The novel’s comedy, which offers the fantasy of radical revolt, nevertheless disguises the final futility of the novel, with Duszejko’s flight resulting in isolation from society and intensified solipsism. Flight and isolation are central themes in Tokarczuk’s Flights, a less obviously political text, but one that shares many of the concerns of Drive Your Plow, not least the privileging of types of knowledge that evade analytic reason and the relationship of knowledge and the control of nature. Avoiding a coherent narrative, with 116 titled prose sections of varying length and twelve reproductions of maps, Tokarczuk sees her approach as differing from a ‘real’ writer, because it depicts life as fragmentary, thereby forbidding conclusions as to the whole. Such a deviation from the norm, like the freaks that her narrator is interested in, is where the truth of being can be found. Yet in Tokarczuk’s shift into apparently radical polyphony, the freedom from the constraints of plot is replaced by constellations of privileged meaning that impose their own rigidity on the reading experience. Freedom from the networked world is temporary and the privilege of wealth.

Relevant Publications

Bird, Stephanie. 2019. “Perpetrators in Literature”. In S. Knittel and Z. Goldberg (eds.), Routledge Handbook of Perpetrator Studies. New York and London.

―. 2018. “Nazis Disguised as Jews and Israel’s Pursuit of Justice: The Eichmann Trial and the Kapo Trials in Robert Shaw’s The Man in the Glass Booth and Emanuel Litvinoff’s Falls the Shadow”. Holocaust Studies 24.4: 466-487.

―. 2016. Comedy and Trauma in Austria and Germany after 1945: The Inner Side of Mourning. Oxford: Legenda.