"Flights" by Olga Tokarczuk

No comments
Translated from the Polish by Jennifer Croft.

Motion! Keep moving - that’s the very explicit message in Flights, Olga Tokarczuk’s fascinating and highly praised 2007 novel. Stand still and The Man will co-opt you, pin you down like an insect in a case, and sentence you to servitude in hell. Keep moving and you have half a chance at wisdom, at beauty, at happiness. In 2018, this English translation won the Man Booker International Prize. The book deserves it, beyond doubt.

Flights consists of more than a hundred segments of widely varying lengths. The novel’s framework slowly becomes clear, and while only a few narrative threads recur to be  updated, these are few and set out quite obliquely. Ms. Tokarczuk sets out for our consideration 17th Century practices in preserving corpses, with brilliant scenes of the busy anatomists’ operating room theaters. In an early thematic statement, the author asks, isn’t it wrong that we die? Shouldn’t we be able to preserve our bodies in perpetuity? The scenes set in 17th Century Holland bring us up close and personal to the first scientists to preserve flesh in any effective way. We return to this motif several times throughout the book, able to follow modernizations in technique along the way.

Other segments contain observations of various details and impressions of 21st Century travel: how people behave on planes; a certain universality of hotel rooms; a nervous note written on the bottom of an air sickness bag years ago; the design of airports. I don’t know if it’s actually the case in airports around the world, but in Flights, specialists - therapists and advanced students - give lectures in airport hallways about the psychology of travel. Mostly these lectures are only spottily attended or heeded - we and our author-guide are included in the crowd that doesn’t pay attention.

But: just past halfway through the narrative we meet Annushka, a disaffected housewife in Moscow. With a hopeless and restricting family life, she flees her predicament during her mother-in-law’s weekly visit. She takes to riding Moscow’s metro, finding a secluded corner to sleep in when the trains shut down for the night. A few days into this life, she encounters a mysterious woman, a vagrant clothed in multiple layers, even her face is hidden. She stands in a station hollering invective at whomever passes. Most of it is unintelligible, but Annushka eventually approaches her and, after spooking her at first, engages her in a halting conversation, fueled by the meals Annushka buys for her.

She learns the woman’s name is Galena, and Galena lives by the code of keeping moving. In her addled, outcast way, Galena serves as the Oracle of this story. At page 258 et seq, in a section called “What the Shrouded Runaway Was Saying,” the enterprising author spells out one main theme of the novel. In it we learn that the body in motion is holy and cannot be pinned down to an accounted-for, prefabricated,  predestined life. If you keep moving, you will be saved from the inhuman government’s cataloging, its endless need for strict order and adherence, birth to the grave. A quote from this poetic exhortation:

“So go, away, walk, run, take flight, because the second you forget and stand still, his massive hands will seize you and turn you into a puppet, you’ll be enveloped in his breath, stinking of smoke and fumes and the big trash dumps outside town. He will turn your brightly colored soul into a tiny flat one, cut out of paper, of newspaper, and he will threaten you with fire, disease, and war, he will scare you so you lose your peace of mind and cease to sleep.”

We also read of a family whose arc exists in multiple segments, far apart in the book. While on vacation on the Adriatic, the man’s wife disappears with their small son for several days. This disappearance lasts a few days, but the man feels he cannot get a straight answer from his wife about it. He hounds her for months with his single-minded questions until finally she flies for good and takes her son with her. So, one cannot or should not become too literal in looking for reasons for flight. They are obvious and many, but sometimes unnamable. Whatever the reasons for the woman’s first sojourn away from her husband, eventually he drove her off permanently.

An unusual reading experience, this. We go along section by section, anticipating that a narrative will emerge, but we must content ourselves with a very slow and oblique unfolding. The main body of the story keeps us definitely in the present day: the rhythms and sights and smells and emotions of modern travel are all too familiar. Longer segments pop vividly up, with their more orthodox story lines, like advances in the preservation of human flesh, and two separate stories of women running from their homes and their oppressive family situations.

By and by, the images and the lessons gel into clarity: flight is sacred, natural, and necessary. The seeming randomness in the segments supports the thesis: the flesh of humans who have been preserved for display or exemplifies the pinning-down of people stationary in perpetuity. The more orthodox stories show people on the move for reasons of self-preservation, and the first-person narrator herself is constantly traveling around the world. It’s a wide-ranging novel, appropriately, and achieves its overarching thesis beautifully. Take it up and enjoy it. It’s unique, compelling, a deserving prize winner.