February 25, 2014

All Who Wander: "House of Day, House of Night" by Olga Tokarczuk

All Who Wander: A CCLaP essay series by Madeleine Maccar

(All throughout 2014, CCLaP cultural essayist Madeleine Maccar is looking at the classic definition of the "hero's journey," as seen through a series of international texts that she is reading in English translation. For all the essays in this series, please click here.)

House of Day, House of Night, by Olga Tokarczuk

House of Day, House of Night
By Olga Tokarczuk
Northwestern University Press
Review by Madeleine Maccar

Olga Tokarczuk's achingly gorgeous House of Day, House of Night doesn't follow the trajectory of a hero's journey in the traditional sense. It's a road map of the individual metamorphoses that are born of travels both literal and metaphorical; its journeys are many, and many of them are internal transformations, the odysseys of a place, or testaments to how time changes everything: The common thread tying everything together across intangible planes is that every journey, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant it looks compared against a grander scale, is a part of some bigger rotary mechanization that corrals lots of smaller voyages into one unifying macrocosm.

The book's narrator is a newcomer to the Polish town of Nowa Ruda (or "new clearing," named for its early history), which has also been a part of both pre-WWII Germany and what was once Czechoslovakia, leaving it with a layered history of changing identities that shape the town's singular one. Nowa Ruda remained firmly in one place as it jumped boundaries, switched nationalities, and, at one time, expelled its citizens, which helps it serve as quiet proof that one need not undertake a physical journey to receive the benefit of a transformative experience. But not all of its stories are fodder for the history books, as the narrator--with the help of her elderly neighbor and longtime resident of the town, Marta--discovers how rich Nowa Ruda's residents' lives are in dramatic changes that affect only a handful of people.

As the narrator collects residents' histories, she (and we) see how easy it is to assume we know someone without knowing the stories--experiences that may be tinged with tragedy or are the ordinary stuff of life but nevertheless leave some sort of indelible alteration in their wake--living within that individual. One of the few vignettes that's split into revisited pieces is the story of a husband and wife who spend years so wildly in love with each other that thoughts of children, which they regard as tiny interlopers that will divide the adoration they reserve only for their beloved spouse, never even cross their minds until the wife is rendered unable to bear children after surgery. Both husband and wife were visited in the other's absence by an androgynous figure with whom neither can help becoming infatuated, finally casting a permanent shadow over the seemingly endless sunshine of their prolonged honeymoon phase. In a moment of late reflection, the wife entertains a thought that encapsulates House of Day, House of Night: "A person changes and outgrows old situations, like a child growing out of its clothes. Time goes by and changes everything. There are big and small wars -- the big ones change the world, the small ones change a person."

Tucked among the primary focus of this book like the smaller figures in a set of Russian nesting dolls are the recurring histories of both Kummernis and Paschalis. The former is a centuries-ago martyr whose devotion to Jesus Christ was so genuine that she vowed to retain her earthly virginity for her spiritual groom despite her father's determination to marry her off against her will; Kummernis's story ends with her fervent prayers for engagement-ending disfigurement answered with the Christ-like beard she sprouts while imprisoned by her father, who is then driven to literally crucify her. The latter is a monk plagued by feelings that he was born in the wrong time and body, who finds himself wishing to be a woman and comes to write the very history of Kummernis that House of Day, House of Night's narrator feels she was "destined to find" during her trip to a nearby town with Marta. Both Kummernis and Paschalis, while separated by a considerable amount of time, experience the closest thing to a true hero's journey, with Kummernis's path following much of the classically charted route: Her introduction to a covenant acts as the summons to a destined path she's wrenched from before taking the habit; the Devil himself tempts her once she begins performing restorative miracles on ailing children; her father's desperately cruel measures to keep her from the nun's life she felt she was made to serve is the moment that impels her to forsake the physical beauty she had so wished for as a child so she can be reborn in a body that better suits her destiny; the physical transformation of Christ's bearded visage replacing her own delicately lovely one is a gift from the God she loved with a rare purity of spirit; and her martyr's death at the house in which she grew up allows for her ascension, a return to the spiritual realm she internally occupied but was externally denied.

The final pages of House of Day, House of Night pull back from the book's hyper-intimate examination of the people comprising Nowa Ruda's population to shed some light on how the town came to be. When Tuntzel, a knife-maker, loses both his wife and newborn baby during their search for a town in need of Tuntzel's skills, he is distraught at the idea of burying them "[i]n the forest like an animal" and stays by the makeshift gravesite, immobilized by guilt and grief. He begins to settle the previously unclaimed land, building a shelter for himself and, later, a fence surrounding it. He eventually marries again and builds a new cottage when his new wife gives birth to a healthy baby. Once they turn the land beyond their house into fertile earth, residents from nearby towns begin building their own cottages near Tuntzel and his second wife's home; by the time Tuntzel is an old man, what started as an unplanned new beginning born of loved ones' deaths has become Neurode, which will later be the Nowa Ruda we get to know in House of Day, House of Night. It's a poignant capstone, illustrating how the journey one seeks is not always the journey that awaits, that while we cannot choose our fate we can choose the path we take to it, and that one's journey toward death is another's diverging path toward a new life.

Filed by Madeleine Maccar at 10:46 AM, February 25, 2014. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Madeleine Maccar | Reviews |