Although Olga Tokarczuk, a much feted writer in her home country of Poland, wrote this book in 2007, it was translated into English only in 2017, after which it promptly went on to win the Man Booker International Prize 2018, which is given for a work of translated fiction (and is, therefore, distinct from the Man Booker Prize for best original English language novel). The £50,000 prize money was divided equally between the writer and the translator, Jennifer Croft. The ecstatic judges said: “We loved the voice of the narrative—it’s one that moves from wit and gleeful mischief to real emotional texture and has the ability to create character very quickly, with interesting digression and speculation.” Since it was a small publisher who had brought this gem to light, the book’s success proved to be a shot in the arm for independent publishing.
Flights is a complex work that has multiple fictive strands running through it: the story of the 17th-century Flemish anatomist Philip Verheyen, who discovered the Achilles tendon by dissecting his own amputated leg; a North African slave turned Austrian courtier who was stuffed and put on display after he died; the journey of Chopin’s heart from Paris to Warsaw; and the contemporary tale of a young man whose wife and child disappear on a holiday on a Croatian island. But, ultimately, the details don’t matter. This is an ambitious work, thriving at the interstices of philosophy, history, fiction, science, travel and more, and isn’t the travel-as-fiction book the innocuous name had made me imagine it was. It’s a deep dive into the nature of travel/movement/ life itself, littered with sublime insight on a variety of subjects and the human condition at large.
Take this for instance, where a quasi-autobiographical protagonist reminisces about her days as a psychology student: “When, in our second year, we discussed the function of defence mechanisms and found that we were humbled by the power of that portion of our psyche, we began to understand that if it weren’t for rationalization, sublimation, denial—if instead we simply saw the world as it was, with nothing to protect us, honestly and courageously, it would break our hearts.”
Or take Tokarczuk’s perceptive meditation on airports: “Once they were in the outskirts, supplementing cities... But now airports have emancipated themselves, so that today they have a whole identity of their own. Soon we may well say that it’s the cities that supplement the airports... It is widely known, after all, that real life takes place in movement... They are more than travel hubs: this is a special category of city-state, with a stable location, but citizens in flux. They are airport-republics, members of a World Airport Union, and while they yet aren’t represented at the UN, it is only a matter of time.”
Now imagine an entire book written in the same tenor.
Flights even takes on the nature of writing itself: “Anyone who has ever tried to write a novel knows what an arduous task it is, undoubtedly one of the worst ways of occupying oneself. You have to remain within yourself all the time, in solitary confinement. It’s a controlled psychosis... completely lacking in the feather pens and bustles and Venetian masks we would ordinarily associate with it, clothed instead in a butcher’s apron and rubber boots, eviscerating knife in hand.”
I know I’m quoting shamelessly but, in an age where intelligence is in remission, one can’t have enough of the stuff.