Translated from Polish by Jennifer Croft
Published by Fitzcarraldo Editions
“Clearly I did not inherit whatever gene it is that makes it so that when you linger in a place you start to put down roots. I’ve tried, a number of times but my roots have always been shallow; the littlest breeze could always blow me right over. … My energy derives from movement—from the shuddering of buses, the rumble of planes, trains’ and ferries’ rocking.”
In one of the first pieces in this collection, the author remembers how as a child, she made her way across the fields to the river Oder. She stood looking at the river, a primal force, a being in constant movement that would make you lose your balance if you stared at it for too long. The child realized that “a thing in motion will always be better than a thing at rest”; staying still equals stagnation and decay, and to be in motion is to be constantly renewed.
And with that, Olga Tokarczuk takes us on a series of journeys, not just physical journeys, but ones into the human body and the human heart. Flights is a collection of short pieces ranging from a few lines to a few pages, including fiction and non-fiction, with some of the pieces based on historical fact.
What does it mean to be human? What connects us to other people? What drives us? These are the recurring questions through this collection. And they take us down some strange paths.
When Chopin dies, his heart is smuggled from Paris to Poland so that it can be buried there. A woman writes to the Austrian monarch, asking for the body of her father—an Austrian courtier who was once a North African slave—to be returned to her; he has been stuffed and displayed, like an animal. On a Croatian island, a holidaymaker searches desperately for his wife and child; he cannot find them although the island is small. A scientist loses his leg and spends his time dissecting and recording every bit of it. A woman walks out of her life and seeks out a homeless woman, becoming homeless herself for a while.
Not all the pieces are narrative: Tokarczuk also includes her thoughts on Wikipedia, guidebooks, airports, and the joys of speaking a language other than English: because English is so widely spoken, she says, Anglophones are deprived of a secret language of their own.
But merely listing the subjects covered in Flights would not do the book justice. I never knew where Tokarczuk was going to take me next. Although the writings are disparate, they somehow hang together.
Tokarczuk writes beautifully (and the translation by Jennifer Croft does her writing justice). The first piece in this collection takes us inside the mind of a child as she sits by herself on the window sill of a darkening house and imagines the world fading away from her. “The dimming light takes the air with it — there is nothing left to breathe. Now the dark soaks into my skin. Sounds have curled up inside themselves, withdrawn their snail’s eyes; the orchestra of the world has departed, vanishing into the park.”
To be honest, I have never read anything like this. Tokarczuk warns, early on, about the dangers of assuming “that we are constant, and that our reactions can be predicted”. Well, in this book, she ensures that we cannot make this assumption. This is completely original and very enjoyable (although some of it may not be for the squeamish).