photo: Mikołaj Starzyński

Bedside table #84. Radek Rak: I like being a naïve reader

Radek Rak, author of the novels Baśń o wężowym sercu albo wtóre słowo o Jakóbie Szeli (”The Tale of the Serpent’s Heart”) and Agla. Alef, is the sole Nike Literary Award winner associated with fantasy in the award's history to date. In an interview with the Book Institute, he talks about his literary masters, his love of genre literature, his spiritual and reading adventures, and explains that in order to really understand something, he has to write about it.

"Every book is rooted in other books" - this is how you captioned the photo you posted on social media to celebrate the completion of your latest novel Agla. Alef. You have shown a stack of books on it, without which Agla would not exist. In what ways are you indebted to other writers?

A long time ago, Wit Szostak, who is a writing role model for me, told me that to write is to abandon one's former masters. I agreed with him, because I was sure he knew what he was saying, but I completely misunderstood him at the time...

What did you fail to understand?

There are some authors in one's life that stick to you and are difficult to get rid of. I, for example, was hugely, overly influenced by Schulz. Getting out from under that influence was necessary, because how much can you write in someone else’s language? There are, by the way, a great many authors who have tried to write in Schulz and none have succeeded. All that came out of it were mere caricatures. Rejecting the influence of the creator of The Street of Crocodiles was very difficult and took me a long time. What I have left of it is a way of describing everyday reality - capturing everyday phenomena in a non-obvious way, so that it reveals new meanings to me.

Who else, apart from Schulz, did you have to leave behind?

By the time I started writing seriously, I already had Tolkien locked away in the basement. I had read a great deal of fantasy literature that ostensibly drew on it, but I had the feeling that it was hollow inside. What I loved most about Tolkien was absent from these books, that is a specific kind of myth and adventure. I realised that in my own writing, I should discard all of the Tolkien imaginarium and keep what is invisible. To my mind, every book I have written is Tolkien-esque in spirit. There are no dragons, elves, or rings in them, but there is what Tolkien, in his essay On Fairy-Stories, called “The Tree of Tales”. Tolkien's understanding of fairy tale and myth has had a big influence on me.

What other influences did you have to cast off?

After Schulz, whom I found difficult to exorcise from my own writing, I tried to choose my masters carefully and make sure that they did not sprawl too much into my work. Which is not to say that they are not important to me. The stack of books you mentioned certainly included Robert Pucek's books. If it were not for them, Agla would not have been created.

After I started studying veterinary medicine, I wasn't too interested in life sciences. I had previously been wildly interested in them, but school effectively chased them off of my head. It wasn't until I graduated and started working as a veterinary doctor that I felt I could start to take a renewed interest in them, already as a free man. Reading Pająki pana Roberta (“Mr Robert's Spiders”), Pucek's first book, was just exactly this kind of a return for me.

What other writers do you think can be seen in Agla?

I derived the entire plot framework from Jack Dukaj's Lód (“Ice”). There is a father who went on an expedition to the north and east, discovered something on that expedition, disappeared, and his child sets out on his trail to find out what actually happened. And most importantly - to meet their father. It may not be a new and innovative plot element, and it seems to me that both Ice and Agla could easily have a completely different storyline; on the other hand, my fascination with the far north has been with me for a very long time. Echoes of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials can certainly be found in Agla too...

You have even stated in a different interview that Agla serves as a polemic with His Dark Materials.

Pullman's vision of the world is Gnostic. It features an evil, dark demiurge who claims to be the creator of the world and with whom the main characters struggle. Of course, it becomes a great war between Heaven and Earth - it's a very Miltonian novel. Except that a few things in this excellent book remain unclear to me, and there is one thing in particular that I consider to be a huge oversight. It seems terribly strange to me, that the characters in this novel know so well the metaphysical structure of their world and know for certain that what they believe is true. None of them question it for a second! In fact, a similar oversight is not only the plight of Pullman's book, but of very many fantasy worlds.

It was important to me that the characters in Agla also had some metaphysical idea of the world, but that they didn't know whether it was real. I don't know that either. I have made the assumption that these are things that people can approach, that they can intuit, that they can sometimes even touch, but can never be sure of.

In the aforementioned pile of books without which Agla would not exist, there were several items on gnosis. What did you need them for?

Reading Hans Jonas' The Gnostic Religion made me realise what the Gnostic way of thinking really is. It is founded on the belief that the world is a hostile place to man, or at least deeply indifferent to them. It's a way of thinking that today's science agrees with, so it's hard to argue with it, yet I come from a different spiritual tradition, namely the Christian tradition. The problem of the clash between the Gnostic way of thinking and the Christian tradition first appeared in The Tale of the Serpent’s Heart through the character of the Evil Man. It was a topic I hadn't planned to be there, and it came up somewhat in incidentally. I felt that I needed to devote another book to this issue in order to understand it better. I haven't finished writing Agla yet, so I don't know where it will take me, but I know it's a fascinating adventure for a few years to come.

Naturally, I wanted to approach the subject in a thorough manner, which is why I surrounded myself quite heavily with Gnostic and peri-Gnostic literature. The guiding book for me when it comes to gnosis has been the aforementioned book by Hans Jonas, but there are a number of other titles in my library. Among them Kurt Rudolph's Gnosis, but also a number of adherents, odd ones anyway, such as Rudolf Steiner, with whom I have a big problem. Robert Pucek tried to convert me to Steiner, but with very poor results. One comic book was possibly also in the pile - The Rabbi's Cat by Joann Sfar. I think that if it wasn't for him, there would be no Harun, his conversations with Sofja, and all of the Joma culture in Agla.

You certainly prepared differently for The Tale of the Serpent’s Heart than for Agla. To tell the story of Jakub Szela, you had to do historical research, work with sources.

I first came up with the idea of writing a novel about Jakub Szela and the Galician slaughter in the convention of Slavic fantasy when I was in my mid-twenties. Luckily, I abandoned this idea very quickly. Firstly, I knew nothing about it at the time, I had no historical knowledge, and secondly, I was simply too young to approach this sort of topic. And yet, over the next eleven years, I collected all sorts of material, not even necessarily about the uprising itself or Jakub Szela, but more generally about what life might have been like for my peasant ancestors. I travelled to open-air museums, read historical studies, and eventually source material.

Tomasz Szubert's historical study Jak(ó)b Szela: (14) 15 lipca 1787 – 21 kwietnia 1860 (”Jak(ó)b Szela: (14) 15 July 1787 - 21 April 1860”) proved to be a breakthrough for me. This is a phenomenal book if only for the reason that the author writes about Szela in the context of the 19th, not the 20th or 21st century. Which means, among other things, that he is not dragging Szela ideologically in any direction. Szubert used Austrian sources, which gives him a very non-obvious perspective. Besides, this is a scientific book, not a popular science book, so the bibliography for it takes up a third of the book. It was this bibliography that opened the gates to source material for me. We live in wonderful times where we are only a few, maybe a dozen, clicks away from most of them on the internet and sometimes a modest fee.

This is how I came across, for example, documents showing the interrogation of Galician peasants by the Austrian gendarmerie. When I started writing The Tale of the Serpent’s Heart, I had the conviction that not much had really changed and that our thinking about the world was not significantly different from that of our ancestors a hundred and fifty years ago. Meanwhile, when I came across these documents, I felt like I was reading a fantasy story about an alien race that thinks in a completely different and terrifying way. This was the moment when I had to completely rebuild the concept of my book.

It doesn’t sound at all like you were preparing for a novel about Jakub Szela. It's rather as if the writing of this novel came out of your long-standing interests.

I can't imagine it being any different. I would not, for example, be able to decide that I am going to write a novel about the Basques, about whom I know absolutely nothing, and just start collecting material for it. My books are processes that develop over many years, they are the fruits of my personal reading and interests, from which a story emerges at some point. Of course, as I write, I'm still searching for things I don't know, but these are details.

Was it the same with Agla?

The subject of gnosis or alternative thinking about human spirituality has accompanied me since I read Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose as a teenager and learnt what was happening in the 13th century in Languedoc. I suspect that Agla is a distant echo of those readings and reflections on what the world would be like if it was the Gnostic way of thinking that had been dominant for centuries. What kind of society would we have created then?

Let's talk about speculative fiction. Did you come across Tolkien as a young person and soak it in?

Before Tolkien, I had also read Verne, but today I am not sure myself if I can still consider him as a fantasy writer (laughs). Later, at the age of eight I think, I came across The Hobbit, which for me was simply a travel novel - I remember that it didn't matter to me at all that the whole adventure was set in a world other than our own. Soon after The Hobbit came The Lord of the Rings. There is a story connected with this. As a child, I went on holiday with my parents to the seaside. They've just bought me three volumes of The Lord of the Rings so that I have something to occupy myself with instead of messing about with other boys. The plan almost worked - for a fortnight, I read non-stop: on the beach, at dinner, at night in bed. On the last day of my stay, an older boy came up to me - I remember he was already in sixth grade - and asked me what I was actually reading so incessantly. I started to tell him about the wizard Gandalf, the quest to destroy the ring, and the whole Tolkien world, and he made a face and said that "he wasn't interested in fairy tales". Of course, I couldn't let him off with it, and I ended up in hospital with a broken arm the day before returning home... The story continued. It was just before the start of the school year, so when I returned to school, having my right arm in a plaster cast, I wasn't able to write in a notebook and participate in lessons as normal, so I just sat at the back and continued reading The Lord of the Rings. It was a wonderful time.

Perhaps it is because of such misadventures that some people say that there is no accounting for taste.

To me, Tolkien was the creator into whose world I escaped. When I had a problem - and for young people the world is difficult, strange, and problematic - I knew that in his work, I would find a home where I would always be comfortable.

I understand that after reading Tolkien, you began to look for other fantasy worlds in literature. What were your next major reading steps when it comes to speculative fiction?

Certainly Terry Pratchett. I came across him very early, at an age when I couldn't yet understand most of his jokes, but I liked him anyway. He's been a kind of lifelong author for me, because I've been reading Discworld since I was twelve years old. I return to some of his books, others I don't, and I think I like the witch series the most. At first, I liked Pratchett's sense of humour. Later, I realised that the Discworld was riddled with various allusions and references, so I started tracking them down. In the end, I realised that Pratchett was actually describing the world around me, and in a way that, for me as a teenager, was far more convincing than writers of realistic literature. Pratchett was shaping me as a person for many years.

What other speculative fiction books were important to you?

Definitely The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis. I felt safe in Narnia because the vision of the world in the series coincided with what I had been taught as a child. Later, when I was a bit older, it was also time for Dune. I entered this world, and it very much influenced my imagination, the way I think and look at reality. And that would probably be it as far as typical speculative fiction is concerned. But later, after secondary school, I encountered a literary combo that I had never experienced before or since. In a very short time span, I read Jacek Dukaj's Inne pieśni (“Other Songs”), Wit Szostak's Wichry Smoczogór (“Whirlwinds of the Dragon Mountains”), Bruno Schulz's Sklepy cynamonowe (“The Street of Crocodiles”), Olga Tokarczuk's Prawiek i inne czasy (“Primeval and Other Times”), and Andrzej Stasiuk's Dukla. After that, nothing was the same either in terms of literature or in my life in general. At the time, I think I was most impressed by Other Songs - I remember that for the first forty pages, I didn't know at all what Dukaj was talking to me about, but I was so fascinated that I couldn't put the book down. To date, this is my favourite Dukaj book.

Was it the period of these five books that made you think you wanted to write yourself?

No, I have been aspiring towards this direction for a very long time. The first thing I wrote was fan fiction for The Wind in the Willows - I was probably seven years old. Later, as a teenager, I also wrote, among other things, the third, apocryphal volume of His Dark Materials. The Polish publisher at the time only published the first two parts, and I was unable to read the third volume in the original, so I dealt with my insatiability in just such a way.

Writing accompanied me all the time, but I didn't think of it as a serious occupation or a way of life. I was doing it for myself and didn't tend to show it to anyone. It wasn't until university that I started writing more seriously. But back to your question: certainly, the period of reading the five aforementioned books has completely changed the way I write.

How do you choose your readings?

I have the feeling that it is not I who choose my readings, but it is the readings that choose me. For example, since I started working on Agla, it seems to me that everyone is writing about insects and the North. I don't know, maybe it's a matter of some algorithms tracking me so effectively? The Woman Who Loved Insects by Selja Ahava and The Man Who Loved Siberia by Roy Jacobsen and Anneliese Pitz have recently been published and reached me. On top of that, for example, Szczepan Twardoch wrote Chołod and Adam Wajrak wrote Na północ. Jak pokochałem Arktykę (”Up North. How I Fell in Love with the Arctic”). What I read always corresponds in some way to what I write. Not because I want to be inspired, but because that's precisely what interests me.

Do you finish reading books you don't like?

No. I have a graveyard of abandoned books in a locked cabinet. I don't just keep bad books in there, but also outstanding books that fall short of what is important to me.

Can you give us examples?

I locked Franz Kafka's books in a cabinet, for example. I am always surprised to see Schulz placed next to Kafka - to me, they always seemed extremely different authors. Schulz is luminous for me, reading Schulz is a journey into the world of childhood. His deformation of reality is a child's natural way of seeing the world. Schulz does not frighten me in any way. What's more, he makes me feel safe. Do you remember the short story The Gale from The Street of Crocodiles? It tells the story of a massive hurricane that came over the city. The world is disintegrating, there is one great, primordial chaos, but there is one place that is excluded from this chaos - home. When I was a child, home appeared to me in much the same way. My parents had told me about the great changes of the late 1980s and early 1990s, so I was well aware that something was happening, there was chaos, but home was a place where this did not apply. I lived in Dębica, which is a small industrial town where, in those days, everything that could fall apart fell apart. If I were writing a book about those times, it would be post-apocalyptic. You don't need a nuclear war or zombies on the streets at all to write a book in a post-apocalyptic climate.

You still haven't said what you didn't like about Kafka's writing.

I just get the impression that Kafka was a terribly unhappy man. Maybe he was venting his unhappiness by writing about it, but I'm completely uninterested in someone selling me that kind of darkness.

What other titles have landed in your graveyard?

Books by Rudolf Steiner, whom I have already mentioned. Stanislaw Lem's Golem XIV is also there. I don't know if, as a Polish fantasy writer, I should admit to disliking this last title, but I remember well my impression of this reading. It felt like some old geezer or moustachioed uncle was trying to explain reality to me using a sense of humour that is not funny at all. This was surprising, because it seemed to me that most of Lem's books, if not on the top shelf, were on shelves fairly high up. I've also locked in my cabinet a couple of novels by Jeff VanderMeer, an American author of the New Weird genre, the kind of very weird speculative fiction, who is considered outstanding. For me, he was the first writer who made me understand that there was no point in repeating twentieth-century literary experiments by applying them to fantasy prose. In my opinion, it serves absolutely nothing.

What is your relationship with the Polish literary canon? Are there any books - apart from the ones you've already mentioned - that you love and others that you hate?

I don't know if this qualifies as canon, but I consider Andrzej Sapkowski's Trylogia husycka (“The Hussite Trilogy”) to be the greatest thing that has happened to Polish popular literature. This series makes me genuinely jealous. I think Narrenturm (“The Tower of Fools”), Boży bojownicy (“Warriors of God”), and Lux perpetua (“Light Perpetual“) give me the kind of pleasure that some people get from reading Henryk Sienkiewicz. Personally, I think Sapkowski did a much better job of telling his story than Sienkiewicz, although maybe it's a matter of the hundred-odd years that separate me from Sienkiewicz's trilogy.

On the other hand, I found Władysław Reymont's Chłopi (“The Peasants”) to be an impossible book to get through. When I was writing The Tale of the Serpent’s Heart, I decided that I would finally read The Peasants in its entirety, but I gave up. Despite the wildly interesting subject matter, I did not get any pleasure out of this reading.

What do you look for in literature as a reader?

This has been changing at different stages of my life. At the moment, I am just looking for literary pleasure. I realised that a great many of the books I had read over the past ten years had given me absolutely no pleasure, so I decided to change that. At the beginning of 2022, I adopted a programmatic approach that even if a book I'm reading is outstandingly written, beautiful and moving, but doesn't bring me the pleasure of reading - I just put it down. In doing so, I have returned to a childhood way of reading, and it is very refreshing. I like being a naïve reader. If a writer sets any plot traps in their book, I happily fall into them and am surprised that it is the butler who killed. I'm a grateful reader of genre prose, which I also returned to after a few years.

Also, I have recently started to return to children's literature. This way, I am looking for books that will be suitable for my daughter and that I will enjoy myself at the same time. In turn, I have stopped going back to my favourite books so often. For example, I haven't read Tolkien for two or three years now, and before that I was reading him virtually non-stop. I used to divide my time between reading Tolkien and reading other things.

I am also always looking for escape in literature. I love the escapist aspect of delving into fictional worlds.

Finally, I would like to address the fact that you are a veterinarian. Do you read a lot of professional books related to your work? After all, scientific readings are also readings, and you didn't mention them at all.

I have to say that I don't count books about my work as books at all (laughs). I have a completely different approach to these typically scientific titles - I treat them in a utilitarian manner. Most of all, however, as a veterinary doctor I read the press, because before something makes it into the books, it has to be sifted through many scientific and popular science articles.

Then let's use your profession a little differently. If you had to recommend some books about animals, what would you point to?

If anyone likes quirky old novels, I recommend William Horwood's Duncton Wood. It tells the story of moles, but note: real moles, not people with mole masks. The animals in this book fight with each other, eat each other, have specific mating rituals, and their lives are determined by the seasons. It's a terribly odd, highly dehumanised novel. I would also recommend the books by the aforementioned Robert Pucek, and, if anyone would like to go further in this vein, then there is also Bees and Their Keepers by Lotte Möller. I also like James Herriot's books - All Creatures Great and Small and the others in the series. I like the way Herriot describes the social background and how he writes about the struggles of treating large animals that I myself, for various reasons, have never had the opportunity to treat. I also recently read a children's novel entitled Lotta, czyli jak wychować ludzkie stado ("Lotta, or How to Raise a Human Herd") by Zofia Stanecka. I recommend it because it's real - life with a dog and dog issues are exactly as described in this book.

Interviewer: Radosław Pulkowski

Translated by Justyna Lowe