· Interview with Olga Tokarczuk on Bieguni ('Runners') NIKE prizewinner ·

Agnieszka Wolny-Hamkało: You said once that you had an 'episodic consciousness' and that the short story was a more natural literary form for you. What is an 'episodic consciousness'?

Olga Tokarczuk: It's built like a bee's eye, it's made up of individual pictures, which a person then merges together. Neurologists say that we all perceive the world like this. The classical novel is in this context an artificial creation, because it attempts to give linearity to perception.

And so your most recent prose runs in many different directions.

Every time I set out to write a novel, I am aware that it is artificial. So I search out ways of storytelling that seem closer to our experience, our emotions. The way I talk in 'Runners' seems realistic to me. That's how the world looks: made up of individual observations. Of things that don't fit together. Most of all the world today of a person who is always moving. One has to use a fragmented form, nervous, shattered. I trust the reader. I bet on the fact that they are similar to me, and that they are smart.

Who are the Runners?

A metaphor for the modern traveller. The name 'Bieguni' comes from a sect of orthodox Old Believers, who treated movement as a sacred state. Permanently moving, crossing borders meant for them not belonging to anything and an escape from evil, which tries to take away their freedom.

Are you a Runner?

A Runner is a nomad. Maybe it's the case that we all have within us the memory of our ancestors who were nomadic. And the settled civilisation, within which we build ourselves nests, oppresses people.

For some time now travelling without restrictions has become normal for Poles. How does the identity change of someone who suddenly becomes a traveller?

There have been books written by philosophers, sociologists, and anthropologists on this subject. I have relied on my intuition and participant observation. I'm not talking only about tourism, a tourist is one kind of Runner. For me a better example would be a tramp, and everyone who has fallen out of the stable order. Social, psychological or symbolic. I tried to create a kind of literary monograph of this phenomenon.

What is required in order to be able to travel so spontaneously?

We probably don't realise how painful the closure of the borders was under communism. We remember the political oppression, the poor standard of living, but this inability to escape has weighed down psychologically on two generations. Today we treat this openness as an exceptional novelty. But after all the world was open up to the First Word War. Now we are really returning to that situation, except the technological ease of travel is far greater. As well as the tourist there are many other kinds of traveller. People who are more interested in "being on the move" than getting to a destination, vagabonds of a kind. Or those who go off to the other side of the world in order to see some particular object, talk for half an hour with someone, to pray in front of a particular statue. This kind of traveller looks down on the tourist, who for them are deplorable representatives of the middle classes. The tourist in turn looks down on the dirty hippy who backpacks through Pakistan without any money.

I have the impression that representatives of the modern tribes of Runners are not fully in touch with reality. They waste their days on air travel, they change their names. They become ghosts. Is this their aim – to be detached from reality?

I think so. This kind of travelling is a deep challenge to the world in which we live, which tries to keep us in place, give us a name, a surname, a social security number and says: your place is here, this is your role. Contesting this world, what Runners call being pinned down, being caught by Satan, they negate the identity created by the expectations of others. On a journey one falls quickly into a "liquid identity", a person gains freedom from themselves.

That's disturbing. Fleeing from reality.

What disturbs me is something else – we live under our surnames on this or that street. But nevertheless we are greater than our names, our addresses. Everybody somehow feels this unconsciously. Something small has been given to us, within which we have to live. We are an enormous energy closed up in a nutshell. To travel is to break open this microworld.

Nevertheless this complete detachment, uprooting seems frightening and sad to me. When one is not trying for something, not looking for anything. A feeling of absolute virtuality. One would need to find something to hold on to.

I've been in this situation a few times, being nowhere, and there was no sadness in it.

In the book there are reproductions of beautiful maps looking like arteries, nerves, blood vessels.

Maps immediately seemed to be an essential part of the book. As I was writing I had with me many strange and curious maps, which I had discovered in Holland. The transference of a three-dimensional world to flat maps fascinated me. It's like writing: you try to capture something multi-dimensional, a cornucopia of colours – and to put it on paper, press it into language. This book would not have been possible without maps. They show what a huge metaphysical similarity exists in the structure of what is large and small around us: the macro and micro. This equivalence, which fascinated Renaissance thought, is still not an an idea we are accustomed to in modern thought, despite the great progress in science.

Does modern travel have something in common with the Enlightenment idea of a voyage as a university of life?

These days much more important than acquiring knowledge is seeing things that amaze us. The Enlightenment concept of the acquisition of knowledge has grown stale. What is this knowledge for? Are we going to save it? Zip it and write it to a disk? It's no longer important what I know, but the meaning of what I know. The books is also about this. What do we get out of the fact that we have found out about Florence? Is something within us changed when we know which architect designed it? These days people should travel in order to see to what extent we are enclosed within our own imagination. That for example four hundred kilometres to the East there are people with a completely different sense of time or think about marriage differently, or declare their love for each other differently. It's important to see that many of the values we think are absolute are relative, are simply customs.

Are we anthropocentric?

We are. And also xenophobic.
It’s a wonderful thing to send children who have finished school to travel around the world. So that they will see what is different. Knowledge one can pick up from the internet, universities and the well equipped libraries in one's hometown.

People travel on business or to relax, but your characters travel with, odd, unclear or absurd aims. What drives them?

The demon of movement, the restlessness of the traveller. Why did Columbus, Vespucci, or Marco Polo set off? Maybe they had a rational aim, but in reality they didn't know what they were supposed to discover. Now we go to the Parises, Jerusalems, Dublins we know from books, myths and films, in order to see if they really exist.

"Runners" tells the story of people you have met while travelling: in air terminals, stations, in foreign towns. You are like a medium, who brings together these stories in a coherent form.

I often feel like that. The role suits me: an ear and an eye, someone undefined, without gender, without an age. Someone who is not too distinct, and that's why the world trusts them. When you withdraw from your own "I", you start to see and hear more. When you are too distinct, you see the world through your own filters, which is not bad either, just different.

You wrote that a woman at a certain age becomes invisible, becomes a ghost and can listen into others conversations with impunity.

In our culture women are "visible" only for a certain period of their lives, when they are attractive, according to norms of beauty and attractiveness, "womanly". After fifty or sixty, they slowly disappear, they fade. Nobody is especially interested in them. Neither glossy magazines, politicians, nor the media. But unseen does not mean – unobservant. It's a paradoxically privileged role: an outsider, who sees things that go unnoticed, being in the midst of the whole confusion.

Can people tell their stories?

It's rather that people are told by their stories.