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.
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 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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