Review: Flights – Olga Tokarczuk

Flights is billed as “a novel about travel in the twenty-first century and human anatomy”. ‘Novel’ is the right word, although perhaps in another sense; this book is structured in a way I have never encountered before, almost like a collection of short stories (a medium in which Tokarczuk has some pedigree).

We leap from modern Croatia to eighteenth century Austria, from a cruise ship in the Mediterranean to Chopin’s funeral, from the streets of Moscow to a Dutch laboratory. As we flit from one time and place to another, interspersed with notes on travel psychology and brief accounts of airport bars and hotel lobbies, we are drawn into the mindset of the traveller. “Each of my pilgrimages aims at some other pilgrim,” Tokarczuk tells us. So it is with her stories; we collide with these characters, see into their lives and minds with dazzling clarity, but for an indeterminate length of time, as they are whisked away again to be replaced by a wholly different scene.

Although travel and anatomy may at first sound like disparate topics, there are red threads that course through the narrative like arteries, and Tokarczuk guides us with such elegance that we soon realise the two things are a mirror of each other – an outward journey, and an inward. It’s a popular trope that people travel to ‘find themselves’; the anatomists and the taxidermists of Flights map the body searching for the locality of the ‘self’, and seek to perfect the preservation of the human form after death. We bear witness to wonderful phenomena – phantom limbs, strange disappearances, which make us question the simple assertion that we are fixed, rational individuals. Tokarczuk’s characters are often displaced, geographically or mentally, their sense of self disrupted by paranoia or loss. Through the gaps in their psyches, as in the diagrams of a skilful dissection, we are able to explore the nature of what constitutes a human being, the fabric of our reality, and the cages from which we experience it.

Much of this may sound unsettling, even chilling, as Flights can be at times, when Tokarczuk strips away the comforting illusions of stability and endurance, leaving us with not even the protection of our own bodies or identities and reminding us that we are essentially free-falling through time, migrants in hostile lands. She does this readily, turning her “eviscerating knife” on the human condition, and of course it is unsettling – how could it not be? To read of your own fears and frailties, laid down with such startling ease of language. And yet, there is much delight to be taken too, in rediscovered loves, in Tokarczuk’s often gothic humour, and in the endless hopes and opportunities of life’s journeys. I believe the true spirit of Flights lies in a passage near its end:

“…whatever your destination might be, you are always heading in that direction. ‘It Doesn’t Matter Where I Am,’ it makes no difference. I’m here.”

 

This is not what I would call an easy book to read, and it is harder still to describe. What I would say is this: if you are a pilgrim, of mind or road or page, here is your guidebook.

“Move. Get going. Blessed is he who leaves.”

Happy travels.

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