Flights by Olga Tokarczuk

Review published on May 23, 2017.

Olga Tokarczuk is one of the leading contemporary Polish authors; she has written nine novels along with short story collections and essays, and she won Poland’s premier literary award, the Nike, for Flights in 2008. Soon to be available in Jennifer Croft’s English translation via Fitzcarraldo Editions, this is an odd hybrid of a novel, composed of miniature, headed stories and observations about travel and displacement in the modern world – and all illustrated with odd black-and-white maps and line drawings from The Agile Rabbit Book of Historical and Curious Maps (2005).

To start with, the book seems like a fairly straightforward first-person account from Tokarczuk or her fictional stand-in. The narrator reflects on how her parents’ periodic nomadism has been passed down to her. After studying psychology in a communist city, she is now constantly on the move. She expresses a love for cabinets of medical curiosities and she has self-diagnosed with Recurrent Detoxification Syndrome – specifically, a fixation on broken and flawed things.

Like Tokarczuk herself, this character is writing a travel book in bite-sized fragments, often based on overhead scraps of conversation. Ageism at hostels, travel-size toiletries and sleeper trains are among her preoccupations. She marvels at how an entire holiday can be reduced to a memory or two, and she worries that describing a place destroys it; better to be vague about details so readers can experience a new destination for themselves.

There are many wonderful passages here about the overwhelming size and diversity of the world and the traveller’s bewilderment when traversing it:

“Whenever I set off on any sort of journey I fall off the radar. No one knows where I am. At the point I departed from? Or at the point I’m headed to? Can there be an in-between? Am I like that lost day when you fly east, and that regained night that comes from going west? Am I subject to that much-lauded law of quantum physics that states that a particle may exist in two places at once?”

“There’s too much in the world. It would be wiser to reduce it, rather than expanding or enlarging it. We’d be better off stuffing it back into its little can – a portable panopticon we’d be allowed to peek inside only on Saturday afternoons, once our daily tasks had been completed.”

“Enormous damage has been done by travel literature – a veritable scourge, an epidemic. Guidebooks have conclusively ruined the greater part of the planet; published in editions numbering in the millions, in many languages, they have debilitated places, pinning them down and naming them, blurring their contours.”

Interspersed among these short, philosophical sections are various tales. One is about Eryk, a ferry worker who goes off piste one day; another is about a woman whose husband is teaching on a cruise of the Greek islands. We learn about Chopin’s death and funeral, including the secret journey of his disembodied heart from Paris to Warsaw, which finds an echo in the assorted passages concerning anatomists and early autopsies.

A narrative I would have liked to spend more time with was Kunicki’s. Early on, we get 30 pages about this Polish man, who is on holiday in Croatia with his wife, Jagoda, and their young son. One day, Jagoda and the boy disappear. Kunicki struggles to get the police to take his case seriously, not realising they may consider him a suspect too. This section reminded me of Katie Kitamura’s recent novel A Separation. However, it’s frustrating how Tokarczuk keeps interrupting the narrative with unrelated material, and she doesn’t return to Kunicki’s story until nearly 300 pages later. Even then, after his wife and child return on their own, we (and Kunicki) get no closure because Jagoda refuses to divulge where they were or what they did.

Although I very much enjoyed and admired parts of this book, it’s hard to see how it’s all meant to fit together. I felt like I missed my own connecting flight at some point; for much of the book I was adrift. At 400 pages, it’s a massive undertaking that doesn’t entirely pay off. This is one to flip through at random on your travels rather than read from start to finish.

Rebecca Foster 3/2

Flights by Olga Tokarczuk
Fitzcarraldo Editions 9781910695432 pbk May 2017

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