Flights – Olga Tokarczuk

Flights have won Man Booker International Prize this year, I was very happy when it was announced, even though I have not read the book (it was published in Polish ten years ago, so I had my chance). Now I have decided to read both the original and he English edition. I think it will be an interesting experience, that for some reason I have not tried before.

It is a difficult book to review. Not really a novel, there is no plot per se and even if some characters repeat it feels like it is not about them either. As it often happens with Tokarczuk’s books it is a form of mediation. The topics are what matters, and Flights touch on many varied topics.

The key one being travel, but travel taken to the next level, constant movement, inability to stay still. The Polish title of the book refers to a minor religious group in Russia in the 18th century. They believed that there is no way to fight the Antichrist, the only thing to do is run, to move constantly so the Antichrist cannot catch up with us. And that’s how some of the characters in the book behave (including our main narrator) – they cannot stop, they run from or run to, but are unable to remain in one place. Tokarczuk peppers her book with fictional lectures on travel psychology, that take place in one of the airports. She expands those into the main narrator’s experience, when she sometimes wakes up in a hotel terrified and not knowing where she is, all the way to getting to a stage when she doesn’t really care anymore where she is.

Another theme Tokarczuk explores and interweaves with the travels is human body. In all its aspects, starting from all sorts of deformation, that our narrator and many characters mentioned find fascinating, all the way to the obsession with preserving the body expressed by other characters. It is almost like some of them cannot stop and others are obsessed with stopping time, making sure our fragile bodies are conserved and remain intact forever.

The book also touches on the experience of being a woman. One of the characters is a mother of a disabled child, that one day just cannot take it anymore and leaves her house to start wandering the streets. Another considers how age renders her invisible, how earlier on her travels she was often spoken to and now she walks the streets unnoticed. This certainly is not the main focus of the book, but something that fits in naturally as one of the aspects.

She also explores language and writing. She acknowledges that every single attempt to describe a place damages the experience of it. It uses it up, and if we write about it too often nothing will be left of the original place. She, of course, mentions the Paris syndrome, and basks in general in syndromes, those slight aberrations that are not necessarily a full-blown mental disease, but that change at least temporarily our perception and experience of the world. Yet another nod to everything that is different, out of the ordinary, special.

It is a long book, a long meditation. It takes time to read and is best read slow, so we can digest it as we read. I am looking forward to my adventure with the English version. There is an interesting chapter in the book about people whose mother tongue is English, how they cannot retreat into the intimacy of a language that is not spoken by everyone, how they are always understood, how their private language is their public language and how their language is no longer their own, owned by the world instead. Interesting.

4 thoughts on “Flights – Olga Tokarczuk

    1. When I read it, it made me realize that I do resort to my mother tongue when I’m on the street and want to say something private. There’s always a chance that someone from Poland would be nearby, but it is definitely smaller than people understanding what I’m saying in English. It would feel weird for me if I suddenly lost this ‘private’ language, but then we cannot regret what we’ve never have, so I guess it is not really that much f a problem for native English speakers.

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