John Klassen


Olga Tokarczuk Tokarczuk (1962-)

Tokarczuk is a Polish writer, activist, and public intellectual. She has been described as one of the most critically acclaimed and successful authors of her generation. The novel, Flights, brought her international recognition when it won the 2018 Man Booker International Prize.


The reviewer in The Guardian noted that the original, Polish title of the book, Bieguni “is the key to the book, much more so than the freely rendered ‘Flights’, a bland but understandable choice in the mostly smooth translation of Jennifer Croft. The bieguni, or wanderers, are an obscure and possibly fictional Slavic sect who have rejected settled life for an existence of constant movement, in the tradition of the travelling yogi, wandering dervishes or itinerant Buddhist monks who survive on the kindness of strangers”. For this reviewer, “Flights is a passionate and enchantingly discursive plea for meaningful connectedness, for the acceptance of ’fluidity, mobility, illusoriness’” [which Tokarczuk argues are, “precisely the qualities that make us civilized. Barbarians don’t travel. They simply go to destinations and conduct raids.”]

Another reviewer noted that, “Flights is not a conventional novel; it’s not even a collection of linked short stories but rather a playful amalgam of meditations, fragments that taken together, explore what it means to be a traveller.”

A third reviewer said that, “If Flights has a theme, it’s travel: the urge to slip through space and time and find revelation in the provisional places that don’t appear on maps or in guidebooks.”

Tokarczuk certainly gives voice to these impressions very early in the book when the narrator says, “I realized that—in spite of all the risks involved—a thing in motion will always be better than a thing at rest; that change will always be a nobler thing than permanence; that that which is static will degenerate and decay, turn to ash, while that which is in motion is able to last for all eternity.”

The narrator states that, “My energy derives from movement—from the shuddering of buses, the rumble of planes, trains’ and ferries’ rocking.” There are many examples of this throughout, but the book does not present a traditional narrative arc and some will find it discursive and meandering and might wonder if anything holds it together beyond the musings of the author.

I think the connecting framework is a broader concept of ‘flight’ as not just physical movement and new places, but always also moving towards learning and imagination and discovery; movement can be internal, as in the physical tracing and depicting by anatomists of the myriad connections within the human body; movement is found in the interplay of knowledge and opinions in the mind which is much to be desired as opposed to, “...that other assumption, which is terrible and dangerous—that we are constant, and that our reactions can be predicted.” This overlaps with the point that we can never really know another person, that we present myriad personalities depending on the observer, and that predictions based on this ‘knowledge’ can be dangerous.

Tokarczuk expands on the last idea in her aside, in the book, on ‘Wikipedia’ and the thought that, “We should have some other collection of knowledge, then to balance that one out—its inverse, its inner lining, everything we don’t know, all the things that can’t be captured in any index, can’t be handled by any search engine. For the vastness of the contents cannot be traversed from word to word —you have to step in between the words, into the unfathomable abysses between ideas. With every step we’ll slip and fall. It would appear that the only option is to get in even deeper. Matter and anti-matter. Information and antiinformation.” There are various ‘key’ elements in this book, but I think this is an important one.

This book embraces a number of philosophical, human, social queries: the meaning of time and space and especially how we measure the former to distinguish past, present, and future; the effect of coincidences mistaken for patterns that can feed conspiracies; the functioning of memory, never stable, never fixed; the impact of the modern, network state; the meaning of the internet which is “a fraud” that promises “execution, fulfillment, reward” but does not deliver and only worsens perceptions; the rapidly expanding, and potentially tyrannical, tools of control and labelling in modern society.

The great leveller that awaits all is Death. There is a vignette, it could be a short story, about an aged, retired scholar on a trip to Greece with I his wife. Tokarczuk’s description of the death of the man is brilliant with the metaphor of the rising tides of blood in the professor’s mind, the tides that take back all the memories, all the essence of who he was: “...the crimson inner ocean of the professor’s head rose from the swells of blood-beating rivers and gradually flooded realm after realm...The sea level was rising relentlessly, the waters swept up words, ideas, and memories...”. This bears comparison with that other great description of death’s encroachment in Stoner by John Williams.

Nor does Tokarczuk shy away from that other great leveller: old age and the need for love and contact: “She [the professor’s wife, lying with him while he napped] thought about how no one had taught us to grow old, how we didn’t know what it would be like....And yet this was an aliment that affected the absolute most innocent. And, her eyes closed now, she thought of something else: the fact that her back remained uncovered. Who would hold her?”

Other guises of love appear in the book. There is love that decays without trust: a wife and son disappear for 49 hours and though they return safely, the man cannot accept, cannot believe, his wife’s explanation. There is filial love in the letters from a woman to the Emperor of Austria (in the 1790s) begging that he return the body of her father who had been a retainer to the Emperor but after death he was stuffed and exhibited as a curiosity because he was black (this is a real event). There is the love of the 61-year old woman for the 81-year old professor, clearly approaching the end of his life. There is the moving story of love and humanity in the woman who goes to an old lover with whom she has had no contact for 30 years (from half way around the world) so that she can assist him with death.

Final thoughts. There are eleven drawings in the book. Nine are maps of different places at different times; no descriptions, no references even within the text, just maps that appear at various points. All of these maps are of cities, or settlements or areas: they are two-dimensional representations that try to package time and space. Are they reminders that the organization of the world can hamper, even prejudice, a drive for mobility and openness and exploration by mind and body? Tokarczuk does not like straight lines: “...the maps of the world, of this internal and external world, [emphasis added] had already been drawn up, and that order, once glimpsed, irradiated the mind, etching into it the primary—the fundamental—lines and planes”.

Two drawings differ from the others. The first one in the book is an overview of thirty important rivers in Europe and around the world, detailing their comparative lengths, delineating the tributaries that feed them, and even the lakes that some rivers flow through; all of the rivers end in a delta, flowing into a sea or ocean. Are these constant, lengthy, convoluted, repeated flows of water metaphors for Tokarczuk’s views of the movement of life, and history, and relationships to an endpoint that is itself not an end, but part of continuing motion and change? The last map is wholly imaginative, based on the travels of Odysseus, the original wanderer, on a quest to return home to love and family, but his success is not at all certain, given delays and back-tracking, enemies, constant threats of death, and the animosity of the great god Poseidon (who is singled out later in Flights). The wanderings of Odysseus mirror the meanderings of the rivers in the first drawing, giving Tokarczuk metaphoric bookends to emphasize that the quests, movements towards knowledge and connections in all spheres and aspects of life can, themselves, be worth the effort and, with luck, they can be successful, but they should never truly be the end. The Colombian writer Juan Gabriel Vazquez, has written “...that the novel is a way of accessing the lives of others, a way ‘to penetrate, study, understand them in all their dimensions,’ a means, according to Ford Maddox Ford, ’of profoundly serious and many-sided discussion...[of] the human case.’

This is my sense of what Tokarczuk set out to accomplish with Flights and in which, in my view, she succeeds.

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