Nobel Prize winner Olga Tokarczuk based her latest novel Empuzjon again in Lower Silesia in Poland, at the multicultural Polish-Czech borderland in the Sudeten mountains.
The novel, published at the beginning of summer 2022, was inspired by Thomas Mann's “Magic Mountain,” describing the lives of patients in a sanatorium in Davos, where Mann spent months accompanying his wife after she was diagnosed with lung disease.
Magic Mountain resonated with great power in the seventies among the Tokarczuk generation living in communist Poland. It echoed the clash of two worlds, the West and the East, and Europe’s political order of those years. Her new novel is a conversation with Thomas Mann and the literature of neighboring Germany. The writer had previously received an award for building an understanding between the two countries. Another Polish Nobel Prize winner, Czesław Miłosz, called Magic Mountain one of the most important inspirations of his work.
As in Mann’s novel, a twenty-one-year-old man from Lviv comes to the sanatorium in Görbersdorf a year before the outbreak of World War I to treat symptoms of tuberculosis. He makes friends with patients from many countries who, besides their health, are preoccupied with problems illustrating deepening ideological conflicts. A young man, faced with illness and possible death, receives an unexpected education. The novel is an example of the literary genre called Bildungsroman, depicting the experiences of a young protagonist looking for answers to life's most important questions.
Görbersdorfof sanatorium was founded in 1855, decades before the one in Davos. It was the world's first treatment center for the most dangerous and incurable diseases. Patients were advised to abandon big cities, stay in cool mountain climates and follow a special diet. The stay here was expensive and belonged to the wealthy and privileged members of society. About a thousand patients from all over Europe visited the town yearly: Russians, Germans, French, aristocrats, and royalty seeking deliverance from their hopeless situations. After they disappeared from their world, they often ended their life here quietly.
Photos of the spa from the beginning of the 20th century show the buildings and streets in an idyllic order - restaurants and cafes full of people; expansive parks with hundreds of statues from Greek mythology. The world of the sick followed a different path from those who came here searching for natural beauty, relaxation, and entertainment. Famous actors and musicians of the highest caliber visited a theater. Free time was spent in the library and on walks in parks filled with Italian antique sculptures.
Death was hidden. The bodies of the deceased patients were taken overnight to the cemetery a few kilometers away. The sanatorium in The Magic Mountain and Empuzjon is a metaphor for life on earth, fleeting and temporary. The freedom with which Tokarczuk moves around the world is fantastic. She is known for the time she devotes to studying details of the epoch. As she admits, writing is a lesser challenge than actual research.
The spa hidden in the mountains died naturally and disappeared from public awareness. Its history was forgotten after World War II. After 1945, it found itself within the borders of Poland and was given the name Sokołowsko. The area known for generations has been buried, as has tuberculosis itself, the threat of which has been wiped out. Recent decades have not been kind to Sokolowsko. The sanatoriums closed down, and the locals were left without work. The novel brought the town back to life overnight.
Empuzjon is a novel from the time of the epidemic. Mann waited for the war to end to give his vision of what contributed to it. Tokarczuk's book, having been announced for months, was published during the war in Ukraine, not a world war but indeed a war of the worlds. Are we in danger of another great conflict between cultures? Will democracy persist in Europe, or will the demons of autocracy return? During the book's promotion, annual politicians' meetings in Davos decide the world's fate. No proper diagnosis was made, and no therapy was recommended.
In the novel, the fate of sick patients is disturbed by news from the town struggling with its demons. The reader must find the answer to who is here ill and who needs the treatment. This coexistence of the two worlds builds tension. The novel's title is derived from the spirit of the ghost manipulating energy in Greek mythology. Empuzjon is a reality inhabited by evil powers. The author leaves the readers with the question of why they appear in the Görbersdorfof.
Tokarczuk often refers to the psychology of Carl Jung, the creator of the theory of the collective subconscious. Empuzjon resembles a visit to a picture gallery, with the images of heroes next to criminals, wise men next to jesters.
Tokarczuk's language is colorful, like a garden in summer. It bursts with life, wisdom, and feelings - but we wouldn’t expect anything else.
I am a frequent visitor to this town, and I have been fascinated by its mysterious history for a long time.