Flights by Olga Tokarczuk (translated by Jennifer Croft)

“Human life is comprised of situations.”

Flights is one of those books which is hard to describe. It is hard to describe and it is even harder to review because reviewing requires some description and the nebulousness of this book makes description impossible. In fact not just impossible but actually counter to the philosophy of the book itself which posits description, in one posting anyway, as an act of destruction in itself:

“Describing something is like using it – it destroys; the colours wear off, the corners lose their definition, and in the end what’s been described begins to fade, to disappear. This applies most of all to places. 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. Even I, in my youthful naivete, once took a shot at the description of places. But when I would go back to those descriptions later, when I’d try to take a deep breath and allow their intense presence to choke me up all over again, when I’d try to listen in on their murmurings, I was always in for a shock. The truth is terrible: describing is destroying.”

So let me attempt a little act of destructive description here. Flights is a book about travel, it is about maps. It is about different kinds of maps: maps of places – which themselves figure in the book – maps of the body, in particular the work of the anatomists who Image result for flights by olga tokarczukhave both described and destroyed the body, captured and mapped it and shared it like those multi-language guide books do; maps of the mind, of consciousness, of the art of travelling and the question of motion. It’s about ‘kairos’ – the Greek God of moments, time captured in a bubble, the opportune or momentous time. It is about plastination, the art of preserving the body in a form which allows it to be both captured and revealed. All these ideas, these concepts, mingle together to make a complex, yet strangely cohesive whole. It is all interlinked, and through clever placement and clever repetition, Tokarczuk reveals this interconnection in surprising and, often, entertaining ways.

“The more experienced a biologist you become, the longer and harder you look at the complex structures and connections in the biosystem, the stronger your hunch that all animate things cooperate in this growth and bursting, supporting one another. Living organisms give themselves to one another, permit one another to make use of them. If rivalry exists, it is a localised phenomenon, an upsetting of the balance. It is true that tree branches jostle one another out of the way to reach the light, their roots collide in the race to a water source, animals eat each other, but there is in all this a kind of accord, it’s just an accord that men find frightening. It might appear that we are actors in a great bodily theatre, as though those wars we wage were merely civil wars. This – what other word to use? – lives, has a million traits and qualities, so that everything is contained within it, and there is nothing that might lie outside of it, all death is part of life, and in some sense there is no death. There are no errors. There are no guilty parties and no innocents, either, no merits, no sins, no good or evil; whoever thought up those notions led humankind astray.”

The structure of the book is equally unusual, or rather it is a kind of usual that is unusually deployed. The book comprises a collection of short pieces, many of which are less than a page long, some as short as a line or a single paragraph. Each piece contains an observation, or a story. Those stories are factual and fictional, they blend the idea of fiction and non-fiction in a way which is unusual to the Western ear (in many cultures there is no separation of fiction and non-fiction, there are stories and there are text books and books like memoirs are considered just another kind of story). Interspersed between the shorter pieces are a handful of longer sections, one of which is a continuous story of a man called Kunicki who lost his wife and son on the island of Vis, and the way this loss affected him. The quality of the writing is quite extraordinary; it is at once clear and enticing, it is reflective and clever and very compelling. Tokarczuk weaves her tales so convincingly that when the purely fictional stories come, it comes as a bit of a surprise.

“’In reality, movement doesn’t exist. Like the turtle in Zeno’s paradox, we’re heading nowhere, if anything we’re simply wandering into the interior of a moment, and there is no end, nor any destination. And the same might apply to space – since we are all identically removed from infinity, there can also be no somewhere – nothing is truly anchored on any day, nor in any place.”

Flights is a difficult book to grasp whilst being extremely easy to read. It reminded me of a kind of mash up between Renata Adler and Maggie Nelson, not as philosophical as Nelson but rippled through with philosophy yet not as person-centric as Adler but with a very personable, and character driven tone. Style-wise the book is similar to these two as well, but somehow there is less formality and more playfulness and in this respect it also reminded me of Calvino in some of his more esoteric writings like Mr. Palomar or Invisible Cities. There’s a playfulness there, an experimentality, you get the impression that Tokarczuk is writing what she feels and seeing where it goes, yet the construction, the style and the skill of her pieces belies that level of spontaneity. No, Tokarczuk is a writer of power exercising her power in a fascinating and entertaining way. It’s like finding yourself in a museum in which each exhibit is both different and connected and as you walk along you find yourself being more and more drawn into it, its dizzying array of styles and perspectives, forms and presentations, and you emerge from it blinking and slightly unsettled, unsure of what you’ve just seen but yet dazzled by it. It has cemented my (not inconsiderable) respect for Fitzcarraldo Editions as a publishing house with spark and an eye for innovative writing and it has made me desire a subscription even more (if that was possible), a desire I’m going to have to work hard to quash after this.

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About bookbii

I'm an ordinary woman living an ordinary life in an ordinary place, and it is quietly wonderful
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10 Responses to Flights by Olga Tokarczuk (translated by Jennifer Croft)

  1. roughghosts says:

    I read a wonderful book by Tokarczuk called Primeval and Other Times (from the Prague-based Twisted Spoon). It is a parable abut twentieth century Poland through the lives of residents of this small community. It is also undefinable with a strong nod to Calvino. I look forward to this one but I’ll have to order it from the UK as Fitzcarraldo books are generally not available here.

  2. SimplyMe says:

    I wasn’t able to access Flights through our library system, but did manage to request Primeval and Other Times through inter-library loan. I agree with Tony Cayman, “Love this review.”

  3. JacquiWine says:

    This does sound like a most unusual book. Funnily enough, Calvino came to mind as I was reading your review, and then you mentioned him. Also Valeria Luiselli and her book of essays, Sidewalks. Fitzcarraldo are publishing some books at the moment – I think you should treat yourself to that subscription…

    • bookbii says:

      Yes, Sidewalks is a good comparison too. I am definitely very tempted to cave and go for that subscription. Maybe for my birthday, as a special treat (plus it will almost be year end by then!).

  4. Loved your review, Belinda! I intend to read this book next month, and I have it on hold on my library. A mixture of Calvino, Renata Adler and Maggie Nelson sounds just like my cup of tea 🙂

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