A GRIEVING DAUGHTER pens three carefully diffident, if increasingly determined, letters to an emperor, pleading for the return of her father’s body. While Antigone demanded her brother’s mangled corpse from a king, this woman is different. Her father, an “esteemed” courtier and diplomat, had not died violently — yet he too had been dishonored after his death, in a curious way. In life he had served the Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II, who had created a personal cabinet of curiosities in Vienna. Now both men are dead and Josefine Soliman writes to Emperor Francis I of Austria, who had decided to have the “black-skinned” Angelo Soliman, born “around 1720 in North Africa,” an erstwhile acquaintance of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, stuffed after his death and put on display, “wearing only a grass band.”
That daughter’s righteous demand is reflected by the loyalty later demonstrated by a sister, who straps the jar containing her dead brother’s heart to her leg and conceals it beneath her skirt to evade Russian border guards. Ludwika’s brother was the great composer Fryderyk Chopin, and following his death in Paris in 1849, she sets out to fulfill his wish and bring the most precious part of him back to his beloved Poland. Centuries earlier, an equally loyal pupil searches for his dead master’s preserved leg — which had been amputated years ago — in order to complete the master’s burial. Elsewhere, a present-day mother of a seriously ill son attempts to flee her grim daily life in a Moscow apartment bloc. While for a young Polish husband and father of one, a vacation on a Croatian island ends in a nightmare and possible madness.
Such are the fragments of lived lives, transformed through imagination, that form the rich sequence of anecdote, observation, wry aside, personal reflection, extended narrative, and intense speculation about the shape of our world and its future one finds in Flights, a sui generis novel by Polish maverick Olga Tokarczuk, longlisted for the 2018 Man Booker International Prize.
Tokarczuk is one of Europe’s most daring and original writers, and this astonishing performance is her glittering, bravura entry in the literature of ideas. The theme is flight, in all its manifestations. Tokarczuk sees the traveler as an individual on a quest for understanding and true experience, perhaps the ultimate in existence, but also potentially driven by the desire to evade reality, elude the inevitable. In a sequence entitled “Everywhere and Nowhere,” she explains:
Whenever I set off on any sort of journey I fall off the radar. No one knows where I am. At the point I departed from? Or at the point I’m headed to? Can there be an in-between? Am I like that lost day when you fly east, and that regained night that comes from going west? Am I subject to that much-lauded law of quantum physics that states that a particle may exist in two places at once? […] I think there are a lot of people like me. Who aren’t around, who’ve disappeared. They show up all of a sudden in the arrivals terminal and start to exist when the immigrations officers stamp their passport, or when the polite receptionist at whatever hotel hands over their key. By now they must have become aware of their own instability and dependence upon places, times of day, on language or on a city and its atmosphere. Fluidity, mobility, illusoriness — these are precisely the qualities that make us civilized. Barbarians don’t travel. They simply go to destinations or conduct raids.
Very early in this wise, observant, and whimsical book, it becomes clear that the reader has found the ideal travel companion, who takes “a different view of time,” and makes one feel that “time is a lot of times in one, quite a wide array.” Indeed, Flights is a narrative to accompany one’s life — each new reading reveals a further destination, another idea to excite and engage the imagination.
To date, Tokarczuk has written two volumes of short stories and eight novels, which include House of Day, House of Night (Dom dzienny, dom nocny, 1998; translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones in 2002). That earlier work also moves between the past and the present, truth and myth, as it tells the many stories of the locals living in a small town that’s now Polish, but had been considered German, Czech, and Austro-Hungarian in past times. Yet Flights (Bieguni, 2008; translated by Jennifer Croft in 2017) soars higher. It marks an ambitious stylistic shift in her trajectory, and although she has been compared, inevitably, with the German visionary W. G. Sebald — with whom she does indeed have much in common — her approach is far closer to that of the Hungarian László Krasznahorkai. Like Krasznahorkai, Tokarczuk shapes seemingly disparate stories and then, through sleight of hand, identifies their relevance in a wider context. Each narrative, powerful in its own right, acquires further meaning as the journey continues.
Flights shifts and shimmers. Its obsessive characters speak in captivating, distinct voices. A recent widow makes candid confessions to the creepy doctor intent on acquiring her husband’s research project into dead bodies. The distraught Russian mother mentioned above, Annushka, seeks out the bizarre figure who stands at the entrance to the underground, “the strip of untamed land between the wall and the just-lain pavement blocks.” The female stranger is different, standing apart and dressed in many layers of clothing. Her head is also tightly wrapped, her face hidden: “all you can see is her mouth as it emits a ceaseless stream of curses.”
Such scenes bring to mind Samuel Beckett. Like him, Tokarczuk is as witty as she is intense, as playful as she is cerebral. Literary references abound. She certainly brings out the best in a reader — and demands a great deal of a translator. Jennifer Croft’s rendition is magnificently nimble and subtle. She traverses the contrasting verbal and historical registers and shifting tenses with a grace and ingenuity. The text is resoundingly alive.
Flights possesses an allure comparable to that of Mathias Énard’s Compass (Boussole, 2015; translated from the French by Charlotte Mandell in 2017). Both Énard and Tokarczuk are erudite without being pedantic. But while Énard’s heady confection of story and literary allusion remained bound to Franz Ritter — his insomniac narrator, ill or possibly dying in his Vienna apartment — Tokarczuk riskily favors intermittent bulletins, including a hilarious sequence featuring marathon train journeys devised to cater to reluctant air passengers.
And yet, at the center of it all remains Annushka, who needs to run to a church not to pray but to weep. Although she initially fears that she “might even hear her own name” in “the rush of [the screaming stranger’s] furious words,” what she finds instead is fleeting camaraderie. Like Annushka, the woman is a wanderer, eventually identified by the police as a member of a sect called “Bieguni” — the runners — whose mission to remain in motion is the metaphysical engine of this book. Such is the nature of Tokarczuk’s literary universe, where seemingly random elements are made to resonate in complex harmonies.
Do these harmonies offer resolution? Several characters demonstrate little interest in the living; instead, they are intent on preserving dead bodies, while souls are best to be discarded. One might think that Tokarczuk herself sees survival only in movement, in the current of air that animates us. Yet her achievement rests not in any concrete answers or prescriptions, but in the questions she raises. Chopin’s brave and loyal sister emerges as a heroine for sure, as does the distraught Josefine, whose letters requesting the return of her father’s body are among the most beautiful episodes in the novel. That said, equally sympathetic is the cool, deliberate woman who travels across the world to assist a former lover wishing to be released from his dying body.
A select few novels possess the wonder of music, and this is one of them. No two readers will experience it exactly the same way. Flights is an international, mercurial, and always generous book, to be endlessly revisited. Like a glorious, charmingly impertinent travel companion, it reflects, challenges, and rewards.
Born in California, Eileen Battersby holds a masters degree in English literature from University College Dublin. An Irish Times staff arts journalist and literary reviewer, she was named Arts Journalist of the Year four times and was National Critic of the Year in 2012.