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Book Review: Flights by Olga Tokarczuk

Book Review: Flights by Olga Tokarczuk

A delightful read on the nature of travel made even more interesting by adding philosophy, history, fiction and science to it

Amit Dixit
January 13 , 2019
03 Min Read
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.  

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