‘Flights’ by Olga Tokarczuk (Review – MBIP 2018, Number 7)

While our time in Paris was extremely educational, if a little dangerous, it’s time to move on, and today’s Man Booker International Prize longlist choice sees us spreading our wings on a truly global journey.  Unlike many of our other voyages, this one has a rather vague itinerary, but if you keep faith (and keep reading) a route will emerge from the haze.  There’s an examination of travel, and all it entails – and an obsession with the human body that verges on a little creepy at times.  But does it all hang together?  Let’s find out 🙂

Flights by Olga Tokarczuk
– Fitzcarraldo Editions, translated by Jennifer Croft
(I read the Australian edition, published by Text Publications)
What’s it all about?
Flights is very different to many of the books on the longlist.  Tokarczuk’s work is an intriguing mixture of lengthy stories and brief, first-person anecdotes.  With few threads to grab hold of, the reader must enjoy the separate sections and try their best to work out what, if anything, connects them.  It may be described as a novel, but it’s certainly a very different beast to most novels you’ll have read.

Luckily, there are a couple of major themes that unfold as we progress.  The first, as suggested by the title, is the idea of travel, with the writer a restless soul unable to settle down anywhere for too long:

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.
‘The World in Your Head’, p.13 (Text Publications, 2017)

In a collection of vignettes, she muses on topics ranging from the wonder of travel-sized toiletries and the difficulties of travelling along a meridian to the joys of Wikipedia and what she calls ‘the train for cowards’ (i.e. a night train, often taken by those wary of flying).  These are amusing little pieces, entertaining, and usually with a personal touch.

However, the writer’s fascination with movement is also evident in the longer stories, spread out between the shorter pieces.  ‘Ash Wednesday Feast’ sees an old sailor take out his frustration on an unsuspecting public by setting off on one last unexpected voyage, while in ‘Kairos’, an aged academic cruises around the Greek islands lecturing on what used to be there.  Meanwhile, the title story focuses (for more than thirty pages…) on a Russian woman who decides to flee her home, providing us with an introduction to the vagaries of the Moscow underground.

The second of Tokarczuk’s focuses is slightly more unusual, namely the human body, and many of the stories show a slightly unhealthy obsession with anatomy, particularly when it’s slightly different from the norm. Again, we are told of the writer’s own experiences as she finds interesting ‘exhibits’ during her museum visits:

Model 59.  A six-and-a-half-foot-tall man.  Skinned.  His body pleasingly woven out of muscles and tendons.  Openwork.  The first glance brings a shock, no doubt a reflex – the sight of a body missing its skin is in itself painful, it stings, burns, as in childhood when live flesh came peeking out from behind a skinned knee.
‘Wax Model Collections’, p.129

This is merely one of a number of confessions regarding an obsession with what lies beneath the surface of the human body…

The writer, then, is just as fascinated by maps of the body as maps of the world, and several of the stories even manage to combine the two themes.  ‘Chopin’s Heart’ has the great composer’s sister smuggling his heart back to their native land, a subversive action in an era when Poland didn’t officially exist.  By contrast, ‘Godzone’, in which a rather more modern Polish ex-pat returns to see an old boyfriend, seems a less risky undertaking.  However, there’s a medical angle here too, with the woman responding to a plea to fulfil her old lover’s final request.

There’s no list of contents here, and with stories and brief musings scattered around, you’d be forgiven for wondering if there’s any underlying structure to Flights at all.  However, Tokarczuk uses a number of techniques to bring the seemingly unrelated aspects of the work together, in a way that reminded me at times of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas.  In addition to a number of recurring cameo appearances (by, for example, a couple of Swedish ichthyologists and a woman on a mission to save animals), there are several stories that ‘end’ only to be picked up again later in the book.  One of these is a piece about a Polish man, Kunicki, where the initial tale of a holiday disaster is continued hundreds of pages later, turning into a kitchen-sink drama.  An even more persistent story, though, concerns the letters from the daughter of a black man stuffed after death and displayed in a museum (it comes as a relief to the reader, after several unanswered requests, that near the end of the book we do get closure of sorts).

Overall, Tokarczuk’s ‘novel’ (if that’s what it is) is beautiful to read, fascinating and obviously well researched.  There’s a lot to enjoy and more to ponder on as the writer urges us to take flight with her:

Move.  Get going.  Blessed is he who leaves.
‘What the Shrouded Runaway Was Saying’, p.268

A simple piece of advice to enjoy travel?  Not quite – you see, even this simple message comes courtesy of a character from another story.  There’s definitely more to Flights than one read could ever reveal…

Does it deserve to make the shortlist?
My view of Flights fluctuated throughout, more so than has been the case with any of the longlist books so far.  There were times when I was thoroughly absorbed with Tokarczuk’s (and Croft’s) prose, but there were also occasions when I found myself counting the pages until the end.  It’s all a little too loose in places, and while the main sections, the longer stories, would probably have been enough to push the book into my personal top six, overall I suspect that the book will be hovering very much on the fringes of my shortlist.

Although I have to say that it’s definitely grown on me since I finished it…

Will it make the shortlist?
Very likely.  Fitzcarraldo have very quickly become a mark of quality, and this is another exemplary work of quality, slightly experimental, literary fiction.  Shortlists rarely consist of six similar books, so I suspect that the unusual structure of Flights might actually work in its favour.

That’s quite enough moving around – time for a more relaxing journey, and a trip to the French countryside (with an Argentinean influence) seems like the perfect solution.  Sadly, even life in the country has its downside, and we’ll soon find that one of our hosts isn’t that keen on the bucolic surroundings.  Looks like our quiet getaway won’t be as peaceful as we’d thought…

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