32. ‘Flights’ by Olga Tokarczuk

An Olga Tokarczuk novel is a mosaic – this is how she described it when I saw her at Hay Festival earlier this year. I’ve never read anything by Tokarczuk before, but Flights seemed like a good place to start, as it won her the 2018 Man Booker International Prize. It was originally written in Polish and was translated by the brilliant Jennifer Croft.

flights olga tokarczuk travel body

Flights is written as a series of fragments. In fact, I’m pretty sure Tokarczuk said at Hay that when she finished the book she took it to her publisher as a bundle of loose sheets in a box. They were confused and said it wasn’t finished; she insisted that it was, and that the parts could be put together in any order. There are a few longer stories running through this novel – the story of a man whose wife and son suddenly go missing on a tiny Croatian island, or the tale of an anatomist who examines the human body by studying his own amputated leg) – but these are separated by disembodied fragments of varying lengths. Some of these fragments are short, self-contained stories; some are the travel adventures of an overarching narrator; some are brief ideas or philosophical musings. This is what creates the ‘mosaic’ effect: you can dip into this book at any point and take something away from it. Tokarczuk has created an intriguing balance between traditional storytelling and experimental structure.

There are two major themes that link the fragments of this book: travel and the human body. Flights is filled with movement. Characters travel on planes or boats or cars, they go on holidays, they move to foreign countries. The narrator describes her experiences in airports and other liminal spaces, and ponders the human desire to move and explore. Interwoven with this are explorations of the human body. There are investigations into anatomy, including a fascinating description of an exhibition in which preserved human corpses are put on display, which made me desperately want to go and see the Real Bodies exhibition. We also see how the body can fail: characters have disabilities, injuries, diseases, but these do not affect their curiosity or their desire to explore. These two themes build up into an impression of humans as travelling creatures that carry everything we need with us in our bodies.

“There can be no doubt – the organs are packed painstakingly inside the body, preparations for a major journey.”

This novel feels current. Modern things like airports, travel-sized cosmetics and Wikipedia all make an appearance and make the book feel fresh and relevant, like it’s happening right now. This is contrasted with the old maps that appear throughout Flights: views of cities from above, before they expanded into today’s sprawling metropolises. This shows how the human desires to travel and know and map out the land have always been there. It gives the book a global scope and makes the reader feel like a citizen of the world, while also pondering what our expanded horizons are doing to us.

Flights is an absolutely fascinating reading experience. I have never read anything quite like it, but the closest thing I can think of in terms of structure is Fernando Pessoa’s Book of Disquiet. I wasn’t sure what to expect from a Tokarczuk novel, but I’m certainly a convert, and I hope that her Man Booker win will inspire the translation of more of her work.

“It is widely known, after all, that real life takes place in movement.”

Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts!

If you want to read it, you can buy Flights here.

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