Tag Archives: Poland

Flights by Olga Tokarczuk

Flights by Olga Tokarczuk took me several weeks to read. It was a slow read. But I persevered because it was my choice for August in Bookword’s monthly Women in Translation series. In addition it won the Man Booker International Prize in 2018. And August is also celebrated as #womenintranslation month on twitter and several blogs.

Flights by Olga Tokarczuk Translated by Jennifer Croft from the Polish.

Reading Flights

It is not easy to read a book that does not follow a single line, does not build plot and characters through one scene following another. This novel resists linearity. It is a collection of 116 vignettes, some fictional, some nonfiction, some no more than notes or ‘philosophical riffs’ (Adam Mars-Jones in LRB).

Olga Tokarczuk told the New York Times:

I realized that we don’t travel in such a linear way anymore but rather jump from one point to another and back again. So I got this idea for a ‘constellation’ novel recounting experiences that were separate from each other but could still be connected on different psychological, physical and political levels. (From Olga Tokarczuk’s Book ‘Flights’ is Taking Off, New York Times, August 2018)

Since completing the book a few days ago I have puzzled about how to write this post. I read many reviews, mostly from literary pages. I have come to see that it is an intelligent, rich and rewarding experience, in ‘the continental tradition of the thinking novel’ (Kapka Kassabova in The Guardian).

The title in Polish is Bieguni, for which Flights is not an exact translation. Rather the Polish title might be closer to wandering or wanderers, or even refer to a sect, possibly mythical. A member makes a memorable appearance in a story set in Moscow, traversing the city endlessly on the metro.

The themes with which Flights is concerned are travel and the human body. The novel has been described as a constellation of stories, and although several reviews indicated a similarity with WG Sebald, this lack of linearity distinguishes them. (They may also be referring to the illustrations included but not explained or referred to in the text, something one also finds in Sebald’s novels.)

I especially enjoyed the passages where the unnamed sort-of narrator muses on experiences, such as what happens to time, and the body’s experience of time.

IRKUTSK – MOSCOW

Flight from Irkutsk to Moscow. It takes off at 8 am and lands in Moscow at the same time – at eight o’clock in the morning on that same day. It turns out to be right at sunrise, which means that the whole flight takes place during dawn. Passengers remain in this one moment, a great, peaceful Now, vast as Siberia itself.

So there should be time enough for confessions of whole lifetimes. Time elapses inside the plane but doesn’t trickle out of it. (232)

The stories, like journeys, begin and are left without warning. Some reappear. A woman and child go missing for 72 hours on holiday on a Croatian island. Her husband is eaten up by what they did when they were away from him and he is unable to accept his wife’s explanation. There are rough living Muscovites, including a woman who is escaping from her caring responsibilities for her disabled son; the history of some seventeenth century dissectors; a restless sailor who has drifted to an archipelago and runs the ferry, and who one day takes flight with its passengers; a researcher who returns to Poland to visit her first love and to make him an ultimate gift; a professor who cares for her older husband as he lectures on a Greek island cruise ship … and so on.

Olga Tokarczuk trained as a psychologist and for Flights she invents a psychology of travel, a kind of opposite of traditional psychology, studying people in transit rather than in a fixed context. Studying people on the move, their reactions to different circumstances challenges the idea of ‘any sort of consistent whole’. (83) We are ourselves a constellation. The idea of a fixed identity is flawed. I love the idea of lectures in airports, where people can expand such ideas to travellers caught in the departure lounge.

Not for nothing did Matthew Turner in his review on Quietus suggest the novel is a ‘cabinet of curiosity’. Such a description is a reminder that such a varied novel will be experienced differently by each reader, who will respond to it individually.

Olga Tokarczuk

Olga Tokarczuk was born in Poland, and not able to travel until she was 28 due to restrictions by the Communist regime. She later travelled extensively, and her reflections indicate deep thought about the meaning of travel, especially for the human body.

She has published 8 novels, two collections of short stories and also poetry.

Flights by Olga Tokarczuk, first published in 2007, and in the English translation by Fitzcarraldo Books in 2018. 417pp. Translated by Jennifer Croft from the Polish. Winner Man Booker International Prize 2018

For another review see Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings.

Women in translation series

Every month I review a book by a woman in translation on this blog. Here are some recent posts with links.

So Long a Letter by Mariama Bâ, translated from the French by ModupéBodé-Thomas

Go, Went, Goneby Jenny Erpenbeck, translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky.

Love by Hanne Østavik, translated from the Norwegian by Martin Aitken

Brother in Iceby Alicia Kopf, translated from the Catalan by Mara Faye Lethem.

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Child refugees and The Silver Sword by Ian Serraillier

I offer you child refugees to think about for Refugee Week(18th– 24thJune 2018). I start with a children’s book: The Silver Sword by Ian Serraillier. It was first published in 1956, written in his summer holidays by a school teacher in Sussex. It is set in Europe, mostly after the end of the Second World War, when millions were displaced, trying to find a place to live or to return home. The characters are based on real people, who travel through a real landscape. The reader, young and old, understands that the war created a terrible situation for the Balicki family from Poland, and they were fortunate to survive and be reunited.

The Quest of The Silver Sword

I read this children’s book very soon after it was published. It made a lasting impression on me, and I gladly reread it for this post 60 years later. The story follows a family who were separated in Warsaw during the war by the Nazis. The father, a school teacher, was arrested for a small act of disrespect to Hitler, but escaped from the prison camp; the mother was sent as slave labour to Germany, and the three children survived in the cellars and forests of Warsaw until the end of the war. When the city was liberated by the Red Army, the three children made their way from Warsaw to Switzerland, along with another stray child and his animals (at times he has a chicken, dog and chimpanzee from Berlin Zoo). This was the time – after the war – when chaos and devastation was everywhere in Europe and millions of displaced people were trying to get somewhere else. War is terrible and destructive and creates refugees of people of all ages.

The family and Jan are connected by the sword of the title, a paperknife, originally given to Mrs Balicki by her husband. The older daughter, Ruth, a teenager, leads the children. She is a natural teacher, a resourceful problem-solver and able to take command and care of the younger ones. Edek has TB, and for a while had also served as slave labour, but at the end of the war was liberated to a prison camp. Bronia is the youngest and then there is Jan, the wild boy whose fate is tied up with theirs and the silver sword.

This is a classic quest, with near escapes, disasters and a great deal of kindliness from individuals: Red Army soldiers, Germans (the farmers), British and US soldiers, and the refugee organisations set up to help the many, many refugees with their journey and with tracing family members. Against all the odds, capture, betrayal, hunger, tiredness, illness, orders to return to Poland, and travelling by foot, lorry, and even canoes, they are all reunited in Switzerland.

At the time of its publication it was, apparently, suggested that children should not be exposed to the distress in the story. Perhaps the adults had not yet recovered from their distress from the war that had ended only 10 years earlier. Despite this it was soon adapted for a BBC TV series in 1957 and later also for the radio and there have been stage versions too. Puffin Books, the children’s section of Penguin Books, republished it in paperback in 1960. It has remained popular with children.

Child refugees

Ian Serraillier makes much of the sympathy that young people easily evoke, encouraging people to share meagre supplies, or to bend a rule or two, even to provide life-saving footwear, canoes and accommodation. Child refugees should be a phrase we never read. But in Refugee Week we must not ignore them.

Alan Kurdi, a Syrian refugee was drowned aged 3 on 2ndSeptember 2015. You will remember him and the picture of him washed up on a Turkish beach. Like many thousands of refugees, displaced by war, he drowned crossing the Mediterranean trying to reach Greece. The situation briefly became clear – everyone agreed that something had to be done. But it wasn’t and refugees, including children, continue to make the dangerous crossing, to drown, or to find no welcome in Europe, or to face the ‘hostile environment’ in the UK.

Did You See Me? is a short story of 329 words by Kit de Waal. It is dedicated to Alan Kurdi, ‘the boy on the shore’. You can find it in a recently published anthology of the experiences of young refugees and asylum seekers: A Country to Call Home, edited by Lucy Popescu.

Did you see me in Kobane, running through the square? Did you hear my father’s shout? We were laughing, my brother and I, and my father came lumbering after us, his arms outstretched. ‘You’re too far away! I cannot catch you!’ (43)

Every refugee is an Alan Kurdi, or a child of the Balicki family. You and I and children we know have escaped this fate only by the accident of our births.

The Silver Sword by Ian Serraillier, first published in 1956 by Jonathan Cape. US title Escape from Warsaw. Puffin Books in 1960. The edition I read was from Red Fox and includes an afterword by the author’s daughter. 192pp

A Country to Call Home, an anthology of the experiences of young refugees and asylum seekers edited by Lucy Popescu, published by Unbound in 2018. 241pp

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Bookword in Poland

Last week I was in Poland, spending four days in and around Krakow. I came, with a friend, to visit Auschwitz-Birkenau. It was the biggest of the concentration and extermination camps built in occupied Poland by the Third Reich.

Everything about visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau is difficult. Friends questioned my motives. I dreaded the visit. What did I hope to achieve by looking at the place where so many people were murdered?

Birkenau Gate

Can fiction help us understand the Holocaust?

I prefer my reading about the Holocaust to be non-fiction. I prepared for my visit by reading A Train in Winter (see below), and I had some knowledge from my history studies. Our guide around Auschwitz kept saying. ‘imagine if you …, imagine how it would be …’ as we passed photographs of the Selection, of new arrivals and we gazed on mountains of suitcases (all labelled with names), shoes, eyeglasses, hair, and household objects. I did not want to imagine any more. I wanted to ask historians’ questions: How did it happen? Who could have stopped it? What prevented people stopping the creation of the camps? What does it mean to be part of an enterprise that murders so many people? And so on.

I wasn’t expecting any answers but a different way to experience the questions.

Auschwitz

I know we need heroes, like Schindler, because heroes give us hope. But we need more than heroes.

I know we need more than imagining walking a mile in those shoes.

We need to understand how we can continue to work against this capacity of humans to murder on such a scale. The Holocaust happened in the decade before my birth. There have been/are other such horrors: Cambodia, Rwanda, Myanmar’s treatment of the Rohingya, continuing struggles against white supremacists in the US, the re-emergence of the far right in the German election. It is likely there will be more. It is likely that the struggle will never be over.

A Train in Winter: A story of Resistance, Friendship and Survival in Auschwitz by Caroline Moorehead

This is the stunning story of courage generosity and hope (cover blurb) but it is also an endlessly depressing account of barbarity, inhumanity and the infliction of suffering. What is omitted in this account of the 230 French women sent to Auschwitz in January 1943 is any detail of the fate of their menfolk, friends, and the others who died in huge numbers even before the women arrived in Auschwitz.

The culpability of the Vichy government, the French police, the German occupiers of France, the many who betrayed the communists and members of the Resistance, the guards and commanders of the camps, the medical staff, the Kapos is overwhelming. And so is the disappointment of the women who were largely ignored on their return to France.

What kept the 49 women who survived alive? Friendship, care for each other, courage, hope and a determination to tell the story of what they had experienced and seen.

It must have been a hard task to research and then write about so much death and cruelty. I felt defeated by it, wretched that humans can behave so badly.

A Train in Winter: A story of Resistance, Friendship and Survival in Auschwitz by Caroline Moorehead (2011) Vintage 374 pp

See also Village of Secrets by Caroline Moorehead in my post on Bookword in the Cevennes.

The Auschwitz Violin by Maria Angels Anglada

Auschwitz

I think it is almost impossible to write an authentic novel about the Holocaust. This partly because a concentration camp, the tattoo on the wrist, is a trope that prevents critique, let alone criticism and limits the reader’s responses. I felt this way about this novel.

The Auschwitz Violin is a short novel which aims to show the power of music to save the spirit in the darkest of times. Daniel is a violin maker (a luthier) in one of Auschwitz’s satellite camps. Although registered as a carpenter he finds himself used by the Commandant in a bet to make a violin. This endeavour saves him and his friend the violinist Bronislaw from death.

It was contrived and unevenly framed. I found myself asking can the sweetness of a violin cut through the dreadfulness of the camp? The tension arises from whether the violin can be made in time and be of a adequate quality under such conditions. But tension is undermined by the reader’s knowledge that it already had been made. And by the knowledge that so many in Auschwitz did not have the luthier’s skills to save them. It felt very much in the tradition of the Holocaust novels of the ‘80s.

The Auschwitz Violin by Maria Angels Anglada, first published in 1994, and in English in 2010. Corsair. 128pp. Translated from the Catalan by Martha Tennant

Other books about Auschwitz It quickly became clear that there should be a monument to Steven Spielberg in Krakow, as the film Schindler’s List is so appreciated here and much referred to by our city guide. My mutterings that it was based on a novel, Schindler’s Ark by Thomas Keneally (1982), impressed no one. Perhaps people deal better with the savagery of the Holocaust when it is mediated through films and/or novels. Did they feel better for a hero?

And to a lesser extent the same happened with Sophie’s Choice, also a film, this time based on the novel by William Styron (1979).

Here are some books relating to Auschwitz by those who there, without novelists or film directors.

I still think about If this is a man by Primo Levi.

An important book that I read some years ago is Man’s search for meaning by Viktor Frankl (1946).

And a book that explores subsequent generations’ experiences of the Holocaust is After such Knowledge by Eva Hoffman (2005).

Lovely bookish things in Krakow

To finish on an easier note the city of Krakow provided several bookish delights.

We had a delicious lunch in the bookshop Bona. Delicious lunch and books …

And, according to our guide and the plaque, the first European bookshop was opened in the square.

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