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Stories and histories in fragments: A review of Olga Tokarczuk’s novel Flights, translated by Jennifer Croft

  • Published at 01:00 pm April 13th, 2019
Flights

Book review

“Mobility is reality”, says a piercing slogan plastered on the wall. The airport is bustling with movement and restlessness, a “republic” on its own, where boarding passes are our only identities. Airports are where international borders blur, converge and separate in an instant, and at airports we find humanity’s only constant—change. Olga Tokarczuk’s Bieguni (Wydawnictwo Literackie, 2007), translated into English as Flights (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2017) by Jennifer Croft, traces the heartbreak, alienation, fleeting joys and mixed emotions in the act of travel. Indeed, “Fluidity, mobility, illusoriness — these are precisely the qualities that make us civilized,” writes Tokarczuk. “Barbarians don’t travel. They simply go to destinations or conduct raids.”

Olga Tokarczuk is one of Poland’s greatest contemporary names. Not only has she bagged The Man Booker International Prize last year with Flights, she has also received the honor of being longlisted for this year’s prize with her murder-mystery, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead (2009). In 2008, Flights also won her the Nike Award, Poland’s highest literary prize, which she won again in 2015 with The Books of Jacob. Translator Jennifer Croft was captivated by Tokarczuk’s ability to “…distill the essence of a person” perhaps due to the author’s background in psychology. It was the author’s short story collection, Playing Many Drums (2013) that caught the translator’s eye. Olga Tokarczuk has memorable, eccentric short stories such as “Borderland” and “The Hotel Capital”, many of them telling the tales of wanderers across space and time. 

The Bieguni are Slavic wanderers, a fictional group that seeks redemption through constantly traveling. An Eastern equivalent of the group would be the Samanas—the wandering ascetics whom we encounter in Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha. Like the Bieguni, the unnamed protagonist has trouble staying in one place. “I’ve tried, a number of times, but my roots have always been shallow; the littlest breeze would blow me right over”—she says. The constant shifting and shuttling remind us of the vivid picture of the Lost Generation of the Roaring Twenties, their longing and their restlessness. While reading Flights, one cannot but fondly remember Hemingway, and mentally traverse the distance between France and America. Tokarczuk, however, takes us on a Europe tour spanning Poland, Croatia, Austria, the Netherlands and France. She also takes the readers on an adventure that spans centuries.

“The guy I met on the train was travelling, like so many of them, in search of his roots.” The unnamed protagonist then moves on to describe this traveler’s complex genealogy—part Polish, part Russian-Jew, Canadian by citizenship and a tiny bit of ancestry from his Native American grandmother. Like this lone traveler’s DNA, Olga Tokarczuk’s novel is a patchwork, a constellation of many stories before they even become stories. Fragmentation is not an alien form to Olga Tokarczuk. In fact, her 1998 novel House of Day, House of Night too is a patchwork quilt that features sketches, essays and disjointed stories set in a village near the Polish-Czech border. House relies far more on Central European history, making it somewhat harder to relate with, while Flights has a more universal appeal. After all, change is the only constant for all of humanity.  

The nonlinear narrative is all the rage in world literature today. What a section of the modernists had pioneered almost a century ago has achieved its ultimate form within the pages of Flights. There are one hundred and sixteen segments or vignettes in the book, each telling a different story, yet connected by emotions, realizations and thoughts of the characters and the narrator herself. The characters, or rather the “people” as the translator calls them, range from memorable to utterly forgettable. Take the lady who wants everybody to become an author, for instance. The Muslim lady’s sole purpose in life is to make all of her countrymen write books and read each other’s books. She also assembles around seven hundred members in an online community devoted to her cause. The unnamed protagonist has the perfect afterthought to this delightful venture, “I love the idea of reading books as a brotherly, sisterly moral obligation to one’s people.” Flights not only tells fragmented stories, it also makes the readers question and reevaluate their own travel philosophies. Even the availability of “travel sized” items in pharmacies and super shops is not spared from Tokarczuk’s scrutiny, “It is as if the cosmetics industry sees the phenomenon of travel as mirroring sedentary life, but in miniature, a cute little baby version of the same.” 

“Precipitate as weather, she appeared from somewhere, then evaporated, leaving only memory.” This quote by Murakami as if, captures every character or “person” that Tokarczuk creates in Flights. However, among the tiny tidbits of people coming and going, leaving like a fleeting afterthought, there are some main story arcs that give us some semblance of continuity. This is where the reader is taken on a time traveling adventure as the novel picks four representatives for each century. From the twenty first century we have the devastated, anxious Kunicki whose wife and child disappear into thin air. We wonder whether Kunicki is as bereaved as we think he is, and there is a certain element of suspense to this arc. Musician Chopin’s heart travels from Paris to Warsaw under the watchful eye of his sister in the nineteenth century. In the seventeenth century, we see Dutch anatomist Philip Verheyen cutting open his own amputated leg and making a revolutionary discovery. The most harrowing tale is from the eighteenth century, that of Soliman—the North African-born slave, later an Austrian courtier, whose body was stuffed and put on display. Readers feel strongly for the unfortunate man’s daughter, who begs the Austrian court for a decent burial for her father through her moving letters. 

Flights is a book for the wanderer, but not necessarily the lost. One can pick right up from where he had left and read a new story in every segment. Perhaps in that particular segment, there is no story at all yet there is perhaps just a sketch of self-reflection, some advice, some food for thought. The Guardian goes as far as suggesting that, “Hotels on the continent would do well to have a copy of Flights on the bedside table.” Perhaps Tokarczuck herself would not be on board with the idea. She had thoroughly made fun of the character that would read nothing but the Romanian philosopher Cioran, going as far as suggesting that the Bibles at every inn be replaced by a Cioran book. Even though Flights was written more than a decade ago, it still remains poignant and contemporary, boldly talking about issues as diverse as race, animal cruelty, the sheer power of capitalism (the “mobility is reality” slogan is used by a cellphone operator, by the way) and the cosmopolitan world. All of that, without being didactic for even a second. 

Qazi Mustabeen Noor works with Arts & Letters. Her works of fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Dhaka Tribune, The Daily Star, Monsoonletters, Six Seasons Review and Himal Southasian Magazine