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Review: ‘Flights,’ by Olga Tokarczuk, translated from the Polish by Jennifer Croft

August 10, 2018

This past May, Olga Tokarczuk became the first Polish writer to win the Man Booker International Prize. Praising her book “Flights,” now published in the United States, the chairman of the judging panel singled out its unconventional narrative, its polyphonic voices and its “extraordinary” stories.

Not that it is a straightforward story collection. Tokarczuk describes her work as “constellation novels” and her practice as throwing stories into orbit to allow readers to make significant forms and patterns from them. “Flights” consists of several stand-alone or episodic tales, plus an array of shorter reflections and meditations, elliptical thoughts and beliefs.

The book has been compared to the fact-filled fiction of W.G. Sebald, but while it does indeed blur the boundaries of the real and the imaginary, it is altogether more intricate, less cohesive and far stranger.

If there is a unifying theme that unites Tokarczuk’s diverse content, it is that of travel, across space and through time. This is most apparent in the book’s most effective sections, namely the longer stories.

In one chilling tale, a man called Kunicki goes on vacation to a Croatian island only to lose his wife and 3-year-old son there in mysterious circumstances. In another, a doctor with a collection of erotic photographs flies to a scientific conference, but finds himself terrified when given the opportunity of romance with a real woman.

The titular tale, “Flights,” one of paranoia and persecution, follows a woman on a dark, Dostoevskian tour of underground Moscow, while “Ash Wednesday Feast” is a yarn about a man who flees a bland Communist land in search of drama and excitement on the high seas.

Then there are the more fact-based stories, some of which intertwine travel with the human body. Tokarczuk takes us back to the 17th century to meet the Dutch anatomist who discovered the Achilles’ tendon when dissecting his own amputated leg. In the 19th century, she traces the clandestine journey made by composer Frederic Chopin’s heart from Paris to Warsaw.

Around these stories Tokarczuk sprinkles many chapters of all shapes and sizes. There are snippets about airports, passengers, guidebooks, foreign hotels and airsickness bags; nuggets of history and snapshots of countries (Holland is a land where “people, convinced of their utter innocence, do not use curtains”); and, unfolding in chopped-up, spaced-out stages, a Polish woman’s account of her life and chronicle of her “pilgrimages.”

Some sections amount to fleeting sketches or inconsequential squibs; others go on too long. Those that work provide food for thought about what makes us move and what makes us tick. Jennifer Croft deserves credit for expertly translating Tokarczuk’s singular ideas and original imagery: “Sounds have curled up inside themselves, withdrawn their snail’s eyes.”

“Flights” is a unique reading experience, but it also can be a demanding one. However, perseverance pays huge dividends. Travel may broaden the mind, but this travel-themed book stimulates it.

Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the Daily Beast. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.

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