International Man Booker 2018 Review #3: ‘Flights’ by Olga Tokarczuk – Peeking at a Traveller’s Notebook

When should you read this book? On a plane, on the way to an exotic wilderness.

I have the Fitzcarraldo edition of Flights, and that austere blue cover plus the blurb (as below) had me feeling a little bit nervous starting this one. What to expect from a book that promises this?:

Flights, a novel about travel in the twenty-first century and human anatomy, is Olga Tokarczuk’s most ambitious to date. It interweaves travel narratives and reflections on travel with an in-depth exploration of the human body, broaching life, death, motion and migration.

So far, so befuddled.

Yet, Flights is actually a surprisingly easy read, much of this surely down to the excellent translation by Jennifer Croft which reads like an English original. The style is pleasingly unpretentious, which I wasn’t expecting given that terror of a blurb.

A proposed blurb revision

In effect, Flights is lots of little thoughts gathered together in something akin to a traveller’s notebook. Here we have everything from two paragraph observations on the flight from Irkutsk to Moscow through to short stories with recurring characters.

Some are long enough to get into and get attached to the characters, where the others are presented as simply brief little thoughts noted down for posterity.

The overall effect is like picking up a very interesting, eloquent person’s travel notebook, or sitting next to a chatty person on a plane.

Aeroplane in the sky

When I was reading up about this book, I saw that one critic from the Guardian had said this about it:

Hotels on the continent would do well to have a copy of Flights on the bedside table. I can think of no better travel companion in these turbulent, fanatical times.

Which is absolutely right – it’s a book about travelling, for travellers (if only of the mind), requiring the one thing that only travellers can truly do: shake off of the habitual and embrace the thoroughly weird.

Enter embalming

If you were surprised to hear that this quirky little book is almost as much about gross body parts as it is about intercontinental travel, you wouldn’t be alone.

Even having a bit of warning about it doesn’t prepare you for the sudden onslaught of fetuses in formaldehyde that Tokarczuk unleashes.

If I were to make an attempt at connecting the dots here, I’d say that perhaps these are the two compass points by which Tokarczuk interprets her life’s meaning – one, the flightiness of her nature and two, the solidity of her physical existence. Even jetting from Irkutsk to Moscow won’t get you away from that.

In one of the stories, the great composer Chopin dies; fulfilling his last request, his sister smuggles his heart over the border and back into Poland. For him, the ‘essence’ was chained to the body. Perhaps the same is true for Tokarczuk – perhaps not.

A hard sell?

Is it me, or am I right in thinking a few of you might need a bit of convincing to give this one a go?

Let’s say I certainly wouldn’t have picked it up unless I was doing this Man Booker series. Travelling and embalming? Qué?!

However, I am so glad I did read it. It’s certainly like nothing I’ve ever read before, and many of these stories will stay with me for a long time. There is something so understated about them which makes their effect so much more powerful.

Take one story featuring a man named Kunicki. He has taken his wife and son on holiday to an island where they go for a walk among the vineyards.

Suddenly he turns and his wife and son have disappeared.

The story follows him as he goes through the whole procedure of looking for them, with the locals constantly assuring him that the island is too small for anybody to be lost for long, and yet…

This is one of the recurring stories that crops up a few times throughout Flights – it was one of my favourites so I definitely don’t want to ruin it, but the culmination of all the fragments is incredibly tense and quite creepy. Brilliant, very subtle stuff.

Olga Tokarczuk is a big deal in her native Poland – her work is constantly winning prizes. If Flights is indicative of her usual prowess I can see why. It’s totally original and like nothing I’ve ever read.

If you go out on a limb for a book this year, make it this one.

light 9_10

Buy a copy of Flights from Amazon.

Next up, Vernon Subutex One by Virginie Despentes.

 

 

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