On Travels and Destinations
In the world of literature, there are a group of writers who refuse to conform to the norms. A select few, they are the ones who, with indomitable courage, push the boundaries of what writing can do and accomplish. They are cognizant that in order for literature to move forward, its conventions must always be wittingly challenged. There is, after all, no other alternative but to move forward. Through their innovative and often ambitious ideas, they deconstruct literature and from its dust, they rebuild it from the ground up. Even established writers who follow conventions try to deviate from the norm and perform their own experiments. In their corpus, it is neither unusual nor surprising to find a book or two that deviates from the rest, an anomaly. The end product, however, is not always as spectacular as expected. At times, the grandeur of the ambition weighs down on the story or the execution fails to live up to the story’s potentials. While the output is not always perfect, it always makes up for unique and interesting reading experiences.
One fine example of such literary work is Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights. Over the years, Olga Tokarczuk has built a reputation as a literary Titan in her native Poland. Known for the mythical elements of her prose, she has been a fixture in the local bestselling lists. However, beyond her homeland, neither her name nor her works ring a bell of familiarity. Things started to shift in her favor in 2017 following the English translation of her 2007 novel, Bieguni. Published as Flights, the novel received critical acclaim and went on to win the 2018 Man Booker International Prize. The first Polish writer to win the prestigious literary award, Tokarczuk has solidified her status as a global literary voice. While it was not her first work to be translated into English, her Man Booker Prize victory has increased the interest in her other works, both the translated and the untranslated. More recently, her 2014 novel Księgi Jakubowe, often regarded as her best work if not one of her best works, was published in English in 2021.
Despite her recent surge in popularity, many a literary pundit still credits Flights as her most pivotal work. It was, after all, instrumental, in introducing her to a wider and more diverse global audience. Ambitious, innovative, and experimental are certainly some of the terms that can be used to describe the novel. What made Flights stand out was its refusal to conform to any established literary norm. In writing her sixth novel, Tokarczuk stepped out of the conventional literary boxes. Flights is not your typical novel. Rather than having a solid storyline or featuring a prominent set of characters, Flights is instead a web of vignettes and carefully pieced and woven together by Tokarczuk’s prose into one grand tapestry. In defying and deconstructing these literary norms, Tokarczuk managed to provide an insightful, albeit eccentric literary masterpiece.
“At first you always see what’s alive and vibrant. You’re delighted by nature, by the local church painted in different colors, by the smells and all that. But the longer you’re in a place, the more the charm of these things fades. You wonder who lived here before you came to this home and this room, whose things these are, who scratched the wall above the bed and what tree the sills were cut from. Whose hands built the elaborately decorated fire place, paved the courtyard? And were are they now? In what form? Whose idea led to these paths around the pond and who had the idea of planting a willow out the window? Alll the avenues, parks, gardens, and streets are peremeated with the deaths of others. Once you start feeling this, something starts to pull you elsewhere, you start to think it’s time to move on.”~ Olga Tokarczuk, Flights
Set between the 17th and 21st centuries, Flights incorporated both fictional and factual elements to produce a far-reaching narrative comprised of 116 short pieces of varying lengths. At its heart, and as the title suggests, Flights revolved around what has become ubiquitous in the past decades: traveling. Traveling has, without a doubt, become a seminal, even essential, element of our lives. When we get stressed out, we travel to places we have never been to before. When we yearn for a change in scenery, we travel. When we feel claustrophobic because of the confined spaces we are living in, we go out and travel. Traveling has provided as an escape from the tediousness of our quotidian existence. We have slowly descended into a peripatetic existence, one that makes us yearn for the constancy of movement. With adamant resolve, we refuse to stay rooted where we are.
Over the past few years, the advancement of technology and the rise of infrastructure have made traveling more convenient. Traveling has even become more accessible to many of us. Prior to the pandemic, the hubbub at the airport, at the bus terminals, and even at the train stations have become recurring scenes that have come to represent traveling. One automatically expects traffic jams during holidays. Traveling is not always glamorous. Yes, social media, a virtual alternative to traveling, has become prevalent. However, many of us still choose to go out and discover places. Our itchy feet desire adventures, the unknown. After all, life is supposed to be experienced. On the other hand, traveling underscored the importance we place on physical connections over virtual ones. There is no alternative to being there and experiencing it all.
Interestingly, the book’s original Polish title, Bieguni, translates to runaways or wanderers, a far cry from its more generic English title. The bieguni also pertains to an obscure Slavic sect, possibly fictional, who believes that perpetual motion, not settled life, is key in avoiding the manifestations of evil. This perpetual motion was captured by the novel’s nomadic nature that transported the readers across major European metropolises, save for some. Like us, the story was all over, in airports, in cities, in airplanes. An allusion to our peripatetic nature, the story also refused to stay rooted in one place, hopping from Paris to Vienna to Dresden to Berlin to Riga to Saint Petersburg and to Amsterdam. This nomadic nature was contrasted with Tokarczuk’s views on this phenomenon that has swept us, including the different elements that comprise it. Among the novel’s fragments are meditations and reflections about traveling, some coming with a sardonic tone. For instance, on guide books, she stated that “description is akin to overuse – it destroys; the colors wear off, the corners lose their definition, and in the end, what’s been described begins to fade.” The novel also mentioned Paris Syndrome, an affliction experienced mostly by Japanese tourists who were unable to reconcile the “discrepancy between the pilgrim’s expectations and the reality of Paris, which bears no resemblance to the city described in guidebooks, films, and televisions.”
In the novel’s other fragments we read the story of a wife traveling with her professor husband in Greece and in another the journey of a Polish woman from her new home of New Zealand to Poland with the mission of poisoning her terminally ill high school sweetheart. For Tokarczuk, however, traveling is not limited to physical movement. Our peripatetic nature extends well beyond what is palpable. It has become innate in us to crave constant motion and this desire to move manifests in other facets of our lives as well. Central to the idea of Flights is the various definitions of home. In a world fixated with perpetual movement, we try to find the semblance of home in the places we travel to. Our nomadic nature can also be gleaned from the relationships we build with the people around us. We sashay around, carrying the hopes of finding our proverbial destination, with the hopes that we flourish and grow in our final destination. We travel to reach a new destination. We travel to escape. We travel to find a home. In Flights, life is both about the journey and the destination.
“I want to know, and not give into logic. What do I care about a proof from the outside, framed as a geometric argument? It provides merely a semblance of logical consequences and of an order pleasing to the mind. There’s A, and after A comes B, first definitions, then axioms and numbers and theorems, some suppplementary conclusions – and you might have the impression that such command is reminiscent of a wonderfully sketched etching in an atlas, where with letters partcular sections are marked, where everything seems so clear and transparent. But we still don’t know how it all works.”~ Olga Tokarczuk, Flights
Traveling, flights, airports remained the novel’s core ideas and were the concerns of the novel’s contemporary time frame. As the novel moved forward, several seemingly unconnected elements started to take firmer shapes. The novel traveled to as early as the 17th century as it explored the lives of several historical figures. By incorporating an eclectic mix of historical figures in the novel, Tokarczuk rendered the novel a distinct texture. Among the novel’s fragments are three letters presumed to be written by Angelo Soliman’s daughter Josefine to the Austrian Emperor Francis II. Soliman was a slave taken from Nigeria who rose to the enviable rank of being an intellectual and a valued friend of Austrian Emperor Joseph II. When he died, he was denied a Christian burial and was instead was skinned, stuffed, and turned into an exhibit in the Imperial Natural History Collection’s cabinet of curiosities, a collection of “odd” objects in Renaissance Europe. Despite his rank among Viennese society’s most prominent, Soliman was long viewed as an anomaly because of his physical attributes.
A separate storyline followed the story of Ludwika Jędrzejewicz, the elder sister of popular Polish composer Frédéric Chopin. Ludwika was at her younger brother’s deathbed on October 17, 1849. After deposing of his properties, Ludwika transported, in clandestine, several of her brother’s memorabilia to their native of Warsaw. Her most important load, however, was her brother’s heart and, presumably, a lock of his hair; it was Chopin’s fervent wish to be buried in his homeland. Apart from Chopin’s heart, other parts of the human body can be found in the novel’s other vignettes. In a series of fragments, the imagined story of Philip Verheyen came to life. His story was set in Leuven’s Trinity College. He was well on his way to completing his education to become a clergyman but an unexpected illness resulted in an amputated leg. This forced him to change course and turn to medicine where he would grow in prestige. He became a successful surgeon and anatomist who was credited for identifying the Achilles tendon. A published author, his most renowned work, Corporis humani anatomiae (1693) was used as a textbook by a score of European educational institutions.
To say that Flights is a multilayered and multifaceted story is an understatement. Beyond travels, science, and history, the novel provided a wealth of information and knowledge. Recurrent Detoxification Syndrome is a condition the novel’s narrator was suffering from; yes, the novel does have a narrator who interjects every now and then. It is a condition where the consciousness returns to or searches for certain images, regardless of whether they are repulsive or not. At times, this search for images is compulsive. The story also doubled as a rumination on some aspects of our contemporary lives. One example was our reliance on Wikipedia: “We should have some other collection of knowledge, then to balance that one out – its inverse, its inner lining, everything we don’t know, all the things that can’t be captured in any index, can’t be handled by any search engine. For the vastness of these contents cannot be traversed from word to word – you have to step in between the words, into the unfathomable abysses between ideas. With every step, we’ll slip and fall.” There was also a piece about the internet, which was referred to as a “fraud”.
Flights was relentless in challenging ideas and in making the readers think and reflect. One interesting point dealt with the apartment that we leave behind when we travel. In one striking piece titled On the Origin of Species that appeared towards the end of the novel, Tokarczuk reflected on how plastics have slowly occupied several parts of the world. These plastics were seen as airborne anemones that are being spread all over the world by the wind. The undertones of philosophy (mostly on travel), politics, and religion were also subtly woven into the story. Accentuating the novel are 12 intriguing historical maps. However, like most of the novel, their context or relevance was never always clear.
“I’m a few years old, I’m sitting on the window sill, and I’m looking out onto the chilled courtyard. The lights in the school’s kitchen are extinguished; everyone has left. All the doors are closed, hatched down, blinds lowered. I’d like to leave, but there’s nowhere to go. My own presence is the only thing with a distinct outline now, an outline that quivers and undulates, and in so doing, hurts. And all of a sudden I know: there’s nothing anyone can do now, here I am.”~ Olga Tokarczuk, Flights
When Olga Tokarczuk was named the 2018 Nobel Prize in Literature winner (belatedly awarded in 2019), the Nobel Committee cited her “narrative imagination that with encyclopedic passion represents the crossing of boundaries as a form of life” as the primary consideration in her win. With its lush scope, Flights is the quintessence of this “encyclopedic passion”. It is a testament to Tokarczuk’s literary prowess. It also demonstrated her ambitious drive, her pursuit of challenging the paradigms. Any other writer would have balked at the challenge but Tokarczuk, as her works have demonstrated, was no ordinary writer.
Flights is a literary labyrinth that tackled a plethora of subjects. It is a well of information, opinions, and thoughts. It is a meditative and insightful look at several facets of our contemporary lives. Ambitious, innovative, imaginative, and, at times, quirky, it captured everything that Tokarczuk’s prose was capable of, and then some more. Incorporating singular thoughts, stories, observations, and commentaries, Flights is a genre-bending literary masterpiece that refuses to be confined in any specific box. In challenging the norms, Tokarczuk wrote a discursive literary piece that expounded on our desire to be in perpetual motion while at the same time providing a tapestry that flourished with evocative details of science, politics, ethics, and philosophy. Flights is certainly not for the faint of heart but it is nevertheless a stellar literary experience that ruminated on a life that is always on the go.
“Each slice is a part of the whole, but it’s governed by its own rules. The three-dimensional order, reduced and imprisoned in a two-dimensional laywer, seems abstract. You might even think that there was no whole, that there never had been.”~ Olga Tokarczuk, Flights
It was not until the winner of the 2018/2019 Nobel Prize in Literature that I heard of Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk, the same case as her fellow Laureate, controversial Austrian writer Peter Handke. When they were announced as the winners, my interest was piqued, and when I encountered their works, I didn’t hesitate to buy them. Over a year later, I have completed my second Olga Tokarczuk novel, after Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead. I have listed Flights as part of my 2021 Top 21 Reading List because of the accolades and praises it has received and kept receiving. I must say, it was a roller coaster ride. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the ride, from its every crest and trough to its every blind curve. It was truly a unique and thrilling ride. Again, Tokarczuk veers away from the conventional to provide a scintillating story. Well, not exactly a story but vignettes of stories woven together to provide a grander whole. The direction was not always clear and it took time for the parts to form the grand picture. Flights is an ambitious literary piece but it is not for everyone. Genre-bending, it cannot easily be placed into any specific box and that’s what makes it stand out.
P.S. Flights is a special case, hence, I switched to star ratings. Judging the book by its parts, where there were clearly no distinctions, is a challenge.
Author: Olga Tokarczuk
Translator (from Polish): Jennifer Croft
Publisher: Riverhead Books
Publishing Date: 2018
Number of Pages: 403
Genre: Philosophical, Literary
Incomparably original, Flights interweaves reflections on travel with an exploration of the human body, broaching life, death, motion, and migration. Chopin’s heart is carried back to Warsaw in secret by his adoring sister. A woman must return to her native Poland in order to poison her terminally ill high school sweetheart. A young man slowly descends into madness when his wife and child mysteriously vanish during a vacation and just as suddenly reappear. Through these brilliantly imagined characters and stories, interwoven with haunting, playful, and revelatory meditations, Flights explores what it means to be a wanderer, a body in motion not only through space but through time. Where are you coming from? Where are you going? we all to the traveler. Enchanting, unsettling, and wholly original, Flights is a master storyteller’s answer.
About the Author
To learn more about the 2018 Nobel Prize in Literature winner Olga Tokarczuk, click here.