by Olga Tokarczuk (2007)
translated from the Polish by Jennifer Croft (2017)
Fitzcarraldo Editions (2017)
424 pp

Throughout this beautiful chaos, threads of meaning spread in all directions, networks of strange logic.

His eyes attentively probe their constellations, positionings, the directions they point in, the shapes they make.

Flights, published by perhaps the UK’s finest publisher, Fitzcarraldo Editions, and seamlessly translated from the Polish by Jennifer Croft (who translates from Argentinian Spanish as well as Polish), is the first Olga Tokarczuk novel I have read, but it certainly won’t be the last.

The Polish original was entitled Bieguni, after a peculiar (possibly apocryphal) sect who believed that the only way to escape the power of the Antichrist was to avoid stability, “anything that has a stable place in this world — every country, church, every human government, everything that has a preserved form in this hell — is at his command . . . he who rules the world has no power over movement and knows that our body in motion is holy, and only then can you escape him, once you’ve taken off.” The English edition has chosen the more generic title Flights (also taken from one of the many different pieces that comprise the novel).

Both speak to the theme of the novel: travel, and the necessity for some of always being in motion rather than at rest. As a young child the narrator finds her way to the Oder river:

The first trip I ever took was across the fields, on foot. It took them a long time to notice I was gone, which meant I was able to make it quite some distance. I covered the whole park and even — going down dirt roads, through the corn and the damp meadows teeming with cowslip flowers, sectioned into squares by ditches — reached the river. Though of course the river was ubiquitous in that valley, soaking up under the ground cover and lapping at the field.

And she soon realised, that unlike her parents, with their settled life in one place, that life is not for me. Clearly I did not inherit whatever gene it is that makes it so that when you linger in a place you start to put down roots. I’ve tried, a number of times, but my roots have always been shallow; the littlest breeze could always blow me right over. I don’t know how to germinate, I’m simply not in possession of that vegetable capacity. I can’t extract nutrition from the ground, I am the anti-Antaeus. My energy derives from movement — from the shuddering of buses, the rumble of planes, trains’ and ferries’ rocking.

The novel that unfolds is not told in linear fashion but, rather like the narrator’s life, is told in fragments, details of her own travels intercut with observations on the psychology of travel and stories of travelers down the ages:

Am I doing the right thing telling stories? Wouldn’t it be better to fasten the mind with a clip, tighten the reins and express myself not be means of stories and histories, but with the simplicity of a lecture, where in sentence after sentence a single thought gets clarified, and then others racked after onto it in the succeeding paragraphs? I could use quotes and footnotes. I could in the order of points or chapters reap the consequences of demonstrating step by step what it is I mean . . .

Tales have a kind of inherent inertia that is never possible to fully control. They require people like me — insecure, indecisive, easily led astray. Naive.

And as she observes of her writing career, she became for some time a sort of gargantuan ear that listened to murmurs and echoes and whispers, far-off voices that filtered through the walls. But I never became a real writer. Life always managed to elude me. I’d only ever find its tracks, the skin it sloughed off. By the time I had determined its location, it had already gone somewhere else. And all I’d find were signs that it had been there, like those scrawl­ings on the trunks of trees in parks that merely mark a person’s passing presence. In my writing, life would turn into incomplete stories, dreamlike tales, would show up from afar in odd dislocated panoramas, or in cross sections — and so it would be almost impossible to reach any conclusions as to the whole.

Many of the pieces that form the novel are short (e.g., a page) and largely stand alone. For example, “The Tongue is the Strongest Muscle” pities the fate of monolingual native English speakers:

How lost they must feel in the world, where all instructions, all the lyrics of the stupidest possible songs, all the menus, all the excruciating pamphlets and brochures — even the buttons in the lift! — are in their private language . . . Wherever they are, people have unlimited access to them — they are accessible to everyone and everything!

Tokarczuk refers to her technique with the shorter pieces as “constellation,” letting the reader draw their own lines and form their own picture, and for me there were a number of main threads that emerged, notably:

  • theoretical lectures on travel psychology given, according to the novel’s story, gratis at airports to passing passenger by an E.U. funded program. These introduce us to, for example, Stendhal Syndrome (the shock experienced by someone encountering an experience of great personal significance, typically a work of art or a great city) and its near-opposite Paris Syndrome (the psychological trauma experienced by mostly Japanese tourist when the reality of Paris doesn’t live up to their idealized expectations). And the three stages of the travelers feeling on waking up in a new place — from assuming they are home, to confusion as to where they are, to the last enlightened state: “It makes no difference . . . I’m here.”
  • the minor Greek god Kairos, god of the fleeting, opportunistic or advantageous moment.
  • the narrator’s peculiar attachment — she claims it is known as Recurrent Detoxification Syndrome — to the imperfect, which manifests itself in her travels as being drawn not to the well-known museums in the cities she visits but rather to “cabinets of curiosities where collections are comprised of the rare, the unique, the bizarre, the freakish.”
  • and linked to this, the book tells the story of the fictitious Dr. Blau, putative successor to (the real-life) Gunther von Hagens in the field of plastination (“crafty plastinators, heirs of embalmers, of tanners, of anatomists and taxidermists . . . I also had the rather unnerving suspicion that this technique could transform originals into copy”) to preserve organs and bodies, and, earlier from the 17th century, Frederik Ruysch.

Tokarczuk makes a strong link between travel around the world and the mapping of the human anatomy. The narrative notes that in 1542, just as Copernicus’s revolutionary (pun intended) map of the solar system (Revoltionibus Orbium Coelestium) omitted Uranus, so Vesalius’s equally important map of the human anatomy (De Humani corporis fabrica) “lacked a number of specific mechanical solutions in the human body, spans, joints, connections — such as, to give just one example, the tendon that joins the calf to the heel.” It was to be 1689 before Filip Verheyen, a contemporary of Ruysch, discovered and named the archilles tendon, and Flights also tells us his story and draws the aforementioned connection: “How could this tendon never have been noticed? It’s hard to believe that parts of one’s body are discovered as though one were forging one’s way upriver in search of sources.”

Perhaps the least obvious fit to the novel’s narrative approach is a more conventional fictional and present-day story which is inserted, albeit split into three parts over the novel, of a Polish man on holiday in Croatia. When visiting a small island, Vis, his wife asks him to stop the car, takes a short walk with his young son, he assumes for a comfort break, but never returns. The review by The London Magazine below provides a very helpful interpretation of the story within the context of the overall novel. The story within the story Flights, from which the English translation takes its title, provides a companion piece, similarly a near-present day fictitious story of a Soviet women, struggling to cope with a ex-military vet husband and a chronically ill son. One day she goes out on her weekly break, her mother-in-law providing temporary respite care, but doesn’t return to the house, instead finding shelter on the Moscow metro and with the homeless, where she meets a (the?) surviving member of the Bieguni.

One fascinating aspect of reading Flights, and which I think speaks to the power of the prose as well as the ubiquity of the themes, is the echoes it raised from other favorite books I have read in the last twelve months, notably other books from Fitzcarraldo themselves as well as their small independent press peers from the Republic of Consciousness Prize. The opening section, describing the narrator’s first trip to a river, could have been taken from Esther Kinsky’s River; the preoccupation with collections of the macabre from Matthias Enard’s magnificent Compass; and the opening quote to my review, with its sense of permanent possessions as a burden, echoes the story of the auctioneer from David Hayden’s Darker with the Lights On. Stendhal Syndrome also features in three wonderful books; Noemi Lefebvre’s Blue Self Portrait, Jack Robinson’s Overcoat, and Eley Williams’s Attrib.

Highly recommended and I look forward to more of the author and translator’s work, in particular Drive Your Plough Over the Bones of the Dead, which Fitzcarraldo will publish later in 2018.

Other reviews:

Translator interview:

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