Words Without Borders: What’s your favorite book from a literary tradition other than your own and how has it influenced your writing?
Olga Tokarczuk: It strikes me that the books we read in adolescence influence us more than anything we read later in life. I was profoundly affected by Elias Canetti’s novel Auto-da-Fé, as it’s widely known (it was originally titled Die Blendung in German). Published in the 1930s, this examination of the collapse of a certain form of civilization says more about the world in which I live now than any current work I’ve come across. Its protagonist, the erudite bibliophile Herr Doktor Peter Kien, who treats books as though they’re living creatures, must face head-on a brutal and primitive world where the most mundane values prevail. The narrative is at once tragic and comic. I would absolutely count it as one of the most formative novels of my life. Despite being written in German, it ultimately belongs to the literary traditions of Central Europe. And Kien has remained for me one of those fictional characters with whom the reader feels a deep affinity—a kind of friendship, even—and to this day I’m always happy to return to the novel, which never ceases to amaze me.