(Sidharth Vardhan’s review of
Flights (original title – ‘Bieguni’)
a novel by 2018 Nobel laureate Olga Tokarczuk (1962-)
Novel first published in 2007
Winner of 2018 International Booker
for translation by Jennifer Croft
(5 / 5))
Flights, which was awarded Poland’s biggest literary prize in 2008, is a novel about travel in the twenty-first century and human anatomy. From the seventeenth century, we have the story of the real Dutch anatomist Philip Verheyen, who dissected and drew pictures of his own amputated leg, discovering in so doing the Achilles tendon. From the eighteenth century, we have the story of a North African-born slave turned Austrian courtier stuffed and put on display after his death in spite of his daughter’s ever more desperate protests, as well as the story of Chopin’s heart as it makes the covert journey from Paris to Warsaw, stored in a tightly sealed jar beneath his sister’s skirt supports. From the present we have the trials and tribulations of a wife accompanying her much older professor husband as he teaches a course on a cruise ship in the Greek islands, or the quest of a Polish woman who immigrated to New Zealand as a teen but must now return in order to poison her terminally ill high school sweetheart, or the slow descent into madness of a young husband whose wife and child mysteriously vanished on a vacation on a Croatian island and then appeared again with no explanation. These narratives are interspersed with short bursts of analysis that enrich and connect them, including digressions on relics, travel-sized cosmetics, belly dancing, maps, the Maori, Wikipedia, Cleopatra, Ataturk, the effects of airports on the psyche, and many more rich and varied topics. Perfectly intertwining travel narratives and reflections on travel with observations on the body and on life and death, Olga Tokarczuk guides the reader beyond the surface layer of modernity and deeper and deeper.
“Age all in your mind. Gender grammatical. I actually buy my books in paperback, so that I can leave them without remorse on the platform, for someone else to find. I don’t collect anything.”Olga Tokarczuk
This book can be a kind of bible for the people with restless legs – people whose biggest fear that they will have to spend all their life in one place; to whom travel is the religion, road is the home and their own house merely a comfortable hotel. The narrator is one such person:
“Standing there on the embankment, staring into the current, I realized that – in spite of all the risks involved – a thing in motion will always be better than a thing at rest; that change will always be a nobler thing than permanence; that that which is static will degenerate and decay, turn to ash, while that which is in motion is able to last for all eternity. From then on, the river was like a needle inserted into my formerly safe and stable surroundings, the landscape comprised of the park, the greenhouses with their vegetables that grew in sad little rows, and the pavement with its concrete slabs where we would go to play hopscotch. This needle went all the way through, marking a vertical third dimension; so pierced, the landscape of my childhood world turned out to be nothing more than a toy made of rubber from which all the air was escaping, with a hiss.”Olga Tokarczuk
There is a small percentage of people who are willing to let go off security and comforts of a settled life to live like nomads because they suffer from what the author calls Recurrent Detoxification Syndrome (one of my best friend is like that):
“Without the bells and whistles, its description boils down to the insistence of one’s consciousness on returning to certain images, or even the compulsive search for them. It is a variant of the Mean World Syndrome, which has been described fairly exhaustively in neuropsychological studies as a particular type of infection caused by the media. It’s quite a bourgeois ailment, I suppose. Patients spend long hours in front of the TV, thumbing at their remote controls through all the channels till they find the ones with the most horrendous news: wars, epidemics and disasters. Then, fascinated by what they’re seeing, they can’t tear themselves away.”Olga Tokarczuk
It is the other lot, the settlers which must have been strange to them:
“They’d set up in the designated areas, at campsites where they were always in the company of others just like them, having lively conversations with their neighbours surrounded by socks drying on tent cords. The itineraries for these trips would be determined with the aid of guidebooks that painstakingly highlighted all the attractions. In the morning a swim in the sea or the lake, and in the afternoon an excursion into the city’s history, capped off by dinner, most often out of glass jars: goulash, meatballs in tomato sauce. You just had to cook the pasta or the rice. Costs were always being cut, the Polish zloty was weak – penny of the world. There was the search for a place where you could get electricity and then the reluctant decamping after, although all journeys remained within the same metaphysical orbit of home. They weren’t real travellers: they left in order to return. And they were relieved when they got back, with a sense of having fulfilled an obligation. They returned to collect the letters and bills that stacked up on the chest of drawers. To do a big wash. To bore their friends to death by showing pictures as everyone attempted to conceal their yawns. This is us in Carcassonne. Here’s my wife with the Acropolis in the background.””
The shorter ones of the over 100 chapters (also the ones I liked best) that form this book are full of such travel anecdotes whereas bigger ones give a few short stories. All related directly or indirectly to traveling touching other themes like immigration, education, travelling psychology, writing, anatomy, evolution, history, Wikipedia etc. The book probably is not a traditional novel – more like a diary kept by a traveler with a wide range of curiosities and who is as ficklish with what she writes as she is flighty with her feet.
Often a review is just an excuse to quote from the book and this review is one of those excuses.
“Here we were taught that the world could be described, and even explained, by means of simple answers to intelligent questions. That in its essence the world was inert and dead, governed by fairly simple laws that needed to be explained and made public – if possible with the aid of diagrams. We were required to do experiments. To formulate hypotheses. To verify. We were inducted into the mysteries of statistics, taught to believe that equipped with such a tool we would be able to perfectly describe all the workings of the world – that ninety per cent is more significant than five.”
Of writing novels
“Anyone who has ever tried to write a novel knows what an arduous task it is, undoubtedly one of the worst ways of occupying oneself. You have to remain within yourself all the time, in solitary confinement. It’s a controlled psychosis, an obsessive paranoia manacled to work, completely lacking in the feather pens and bustles and Venetian masks we would ordinarily associate with it, clothed instead in a butcher’s apron and rubber boots, eviscerating knife in hand. You can only barely see from that writerly cellar the feet of passers-by, hear the rapping of their heels. Every so often someone stops and bends down and glances in through the window, and then you get a glimpse of a human face, maybe even exchange a few words. But ultimately the mind is so occupied with its own act, a play staged by the self for the self in a hasty, makeshift cabinet of curiosities peopled by author and character, narrator and reader, the person describing and the person being described, that feet, shoes, heels, and faces become, sooner or later, mere components of that act. “
“As far as I can tell, this is mankind’s most honest cognitive project. It is frank about the fact that all the information we have about the world comes straight out of our own heads, like Athena out of Zeus’s. People bring to Wikipedia everything they know. If the project succeeds, then this encyclopaedia undergoing perpetual renewal will be the greatest wonder of the world. It has everything we know in it – every thing, definition, event, and problem our brains have worked on; we shall cite sources, provide links.”Olga Tokarczuk
About traveling alone
“An old friend of mine once told me how he hated travelling alone. His gripe was: when he sees something out of the ordinary, something new and beautiful, he so wants to share it with someone that he becomes deeply unhappy if there’s no one around.Olga Tokarczuk
I doubt he would make a good pilgrim.”
“There is a certain well-known syndrome named after Stendhal in which one arrives in a place known from literature or art and experiences it so intensely that one grows weak or faints. There are those who boast they have discovered places totally unknown, and then we envy them for experiencing the truest reality even very fleetingly before that place, like all the rest, is absorbed by our minds.”Olga Tokarczuk
“Obsession is, in any case, the premonition of the existence of an individual language, an irreproducible language through the attentive use of which we will be able to uncover the truth. We must follow this premonition into regions that to others might seem absurd and mad. I don’t know why this language of truth sounds angelic to some, while to others it changes into mathematical signs or notations. But there are also those to whose whim it speaks in a very strange way.”Olga Tokarczuk
“I want to know, and not give in to logic. What do I care about a proof from the outside, framed as a geometric argument? It provides merely a semblance of logical consequence and of an order pleasing to the mind.”Olga Tokarczuk
About telling tales
“Tales have a kind of inherent inertia that is never possible to fully control. They require people like me – insecure, indecisive, easily led astray. Naive.”Olga Tokarczuk
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Copyright – Sidharth Vardhan