Author: Olga Tokarczuk
Publisher: Riverhead Books
Page Count: 403
Publication Date: 2018
Category/Genre: Fiction, Short Stories, European Literature, Cultural, Travel, Contemporary, Essays
Good Reads Rating: ★★★★☆ (3.81)
My Rating: ★★★★☆(4)
From the incomparably original Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk, Flights interweaves reflections on travel with an in-depth exploration of the human body, broaching life, death, motion, and migration. Chopin’s heart is carried back to Warsaw in secret by his adoring sister. A woman must return to her native Poland in order to poison her terminally ill high school sweetheart, and a young man slowly descends into madness when his wife and child mysteriously vanish during a vacation and just as suddenly reappear. Through these brilliantly imagined characters and stories, interwoven with haunting, playful, and revelatory meditations, Flights explores what it means to be a traveler, a wanderer, a body in motion not only through space but through time. Where are you from? Where are you coming in from? Where are you going? we call to the traveler. Enchanting, unsettling, and wholly original, Flights is a master storyteller’s answer.
Flights is an essayistic work of fiction with more than 100 segments, in which the pieces vary in length from a single sentence to full chapter-length spanning more than 30 pages. The longer pieces are more akin to short stories while the shorter ones are more reminiscent of thoughts, observations or tidbits of science or history. Interspersed are sketches and maps. But one thing is constant. The theme of physical movement, mortality, the passage of time and the meaning of home.
At the center are the beliefs of the bieguni, or wanderers (also the name of the original version of the book), who are an obscure Slavic sect who have rejected settled life for an existence of constant movement.
“Whoever pauses will be petrified, whoever stops, pinned like an insect, his heart pierced by a wooden needle, his hands and feet drilled through and pinned into the threshold and the ceiling … This is why tyrants of all stripes, infernal servants, have such deep-seated hatred for the nomads – this is why they persecute the Gypsies and the Jews, and why they force all free people to settle, assigning the addresses that serve as our sentences.”
For the narrator, the obsession with constant motion begins in childhood with her parents and their “timid tourism” every year in the family Škoda. She soon realized, that unlike her parents who were satisfied with yearly vacations and settled life, she couldn’t be grounded.
(…)that life is not for me. 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. I don’t know how to germinate, I’m simply not in possession of that vegetable capacity. I can’t extract nutrition from the ground, I am the anti-Antaeus. My energy derives from movement – from the shuddering of buses, the rumble of planes, trains’ and ferries’ rocking.
Told in fragments, the narrator details her own travels mixed with observations on the psychology of travel, stories of various travelers and the wisdom and experiences of the bieguni.
From the story of Kunicki, a Polish businessman, whose wife and son disappear for three days while vacationing on a Croatian island to the moving journey of Chopin’s heart from Paris to Warsaw, the reader is drawn into the richness of the characters and each of their journeys.
Tokarczuk refers to her technique with the shorter pieces as ‘constellation’ – letting the reader draw their own lines and form their own picture – which is an extraordinary and apt description of the reading experience.
This is a unique and thought-provoking book, that delves into what it means to wander and the journey that takes place within – the continuous search and fight for self-discovery – along the way.
The emphasis is on human emotions, independence, unfulfilled wishes and that necessity for some to always be in motion rather than at rest, even on a cellular level.
Like short stories, the component chapters are best read in a single sitting. This is a fragmented, chaotic, unconventional novel that some may struggle to embrace, feeling much more comfortable with stability. For others such as myself, that wrest with our own feelings of restlessness and need for constant motion, this book will tug at your heart and make your legs itch.