How does one approach the art of travel writing? Some writers observe themselves as much as other people and places; others report on adventures in exotic locales; others look for the authentic through the anthropological. Flights, a travel book by the Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk, is an original. She has little interest in herself, ponders the experience of airports and hotels more than her random destinations, and is as likely to tell a fictional story as a historical one. Notably, Tokarczuk rejects guidebooks in favour of the famously hybrid Moby-Dick and a fantastical account of foreign lands by an 18th-century Catholic priest who never left home. She also offers an image of her creative practice in her rejection of art museums in favour of “the cabinet of curiosities, where collections are comprised of the rare, the unique, the bizarre, the freakish”.
As the metaphor of the cabinet of curiosities suggests, Flights has no single narrative. It is a fragmentary collection of reflections, observations, jokes, lists of strange facts, maps, character portraits and stories – some fictional, some historical. In a lecture on travel psychology the author hears at an airport, the speaker argues that “constellation, not sequencing, carries truth”. It is another image for the method of this cleverly self-aware book. In fact, the method of constellation gives the book coherence, gradually revealing the author’s obsession with death.
This is most evident in stories revolving around anatomists, vivisectionists, embalmers and plastinators. In one of the fragments of historical fiction that litter this book, we learn how, after the death of Chopin, his sister Ludwika smuggled the composer’s heart, embalmed in a jar, into Poland, strung by “leather straps to the scaffolding of the crinoline” of her dress and thus hidden beneath her skirts. Once across the border, another woman, “rummaging around in lace, drew out the jar safely and handed it to Ludwika with the gesture of someone handing a mother her newborn child”.
The stories without historical roots also reveal a profound concern with mortality, which is, for Tokarczuk, a concern with the materiality of bodies. In a story called “Kairos”, an 81-year-old professor, who had married a younger woman “as the air was leaking out of his first marriage”, undertakes a lecturing job on a cruise ship in the Greek islands. The story culminates with an astonishing depiction of a stroke, which is described as an erasure of a world:
… the crimson inner ocean of the professor’s head rose from the swells of blood-bearing rivers and gradually flooded realm after realm – first the plains of Europe, where he’d been born and raised. Cities disappeared underwater, and the bridges and dams built so methodically by generations of his ancestors. The ocean reached the threshold of their reed-roofed home and boldly stepped inside. It unfurled a red carpet over those stone floors, the floorboards of the kitchen, scrubbed each Saturday, finally putting out the fire in the fireplace …
Shorter anecdotes are also often given a coherent place in the book through the common theme of death. When Tokarczuk volunteers to be laid over at a hotel because of an overbooked flight, she finds herself having dinner in the hotel restaurant with a Swedish woman, who explains how the spirit of Christ can be found in animals: “Every day God sacrifices himself for us, dying over and over, feeding us with his body, clothing us in his skin, allowing us to test our medicines on him so that we might live longer and better. Thus does he show his affection, bestow on us his friendship and love.” In another fragment, called “Network State”, Tokarczuk’s phone cannot locate a signal, in a way that proves resonant in the established context. Crossing over into a premodern state, she is suddenly and transcendently able to “see the stars and planets, spread out evenly across the firmament of the sky” and to hear “the music of the spheres”.
However, Flights is never maudlin. Each story is enlivened by the surprise of dazzling imagery or comedic (but poignant) asides. In “Boarding”, for instance, we read of a middle-aged male passenger who “looks like a guy who discovered not so long ago that he’s not really so different from everybody else – thus attaining, in other words, his own enlightenment”. In the fragment “Cleopatras”, the author rides in a bus with “a dozen fully veiled women”, marvelling at their made-up eyes. A TV screens Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, and they watch how “that lithe girl with the gleaming arms and thighs felled soldiers who were all armed to the teeth”. There are, indeed, many laugh-out-loud moments, with Tokarczuk showing not only an eye for incongruity but also gifts in comic delivery. A pithy fragment called “Even” reveals: “Driving, I pass billboards that announce in black and white, in English, ‘Jesus loves even you’. I feel uplifted by the unexpected encouragement; I’m only slightly alarmed by that ‘even’.”
In addition to the defamiliarising techniques of humour, Tokarczuk uses the defamiliarising strategies of poetry to striking effect, in ways beautifully translated by Jennifer Croft. In the serialised story about Kunicki, a man who mysteriously loses his wife and child on a Croatian island, the flies in the empty countryside are described as “quiet’s familiar warp”. In a fragment called “In Pursuit of Night”, the author ponders the action of changing channels: “You hold the remote out like a weapon, and you take shots at the very centre of the screen. Each shot kills one channel, but then another follows directly on its heels.” After reading this book, you’ll likely never see the world the same again.
Despite dwelling on our proverbial “final destination”, Tokarczuk’s peerless travel guide is actually a guide to living. Every word, observation, reflection and story embraces the importance of staying mobile in thought as much as in being, resisting what Tokarczuk describes as “that vegetable capacity” for becoming thoughtlessly sedentary. This is as brilliant and life-affirming as literature gets. KN
Text, 416pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 16, 2017 as "Olga Tokarczuk, Flights". Subscribe here.