Writer: Olga Tokarczuk (translated by Jennifer Croft)
Publishing House: Fitzcarraldo Editions
Date of Publication: May 17th 2017 (first published September 2007)
Rating: 5 stars
‘’Each of my pilgrimages aims at some other pilgrim. In this case the pilgrim is in pieces, broken down.’’
This might very well be the first time that I have no clear ‘’picture’’ in my head regarding this review. Flights is the winner of the 2018 Man Booker International Prize and this is one of those cases where the verb ‘’like’’ and its negative form can’t retain any significant meaning. So be patient with me while I am trying to -clumsily- explain the impact Flights had on me.
In a magnificent translation by Jennifer Croft, Flights is a modern Odyssey of the human being amidst eternal journeys from country to country but, most importantly, within ourselves. Anatomy and transportation are combined to demonstrate the continuous search, the change, the fight for self-discovery. Individual stories, taking place over different eras, born out of curiosity and despair. Tokarczuk’s work is a hymn to human emotions, to independence, to unfulfilled wishes.
‘’He said that death marks places like a dog marking its territory.’’
Flights is a novel featuring characteristics of essays, biography, and non-fiction, where the voice of the writer reflects the feelings and thoughts of characters in a distant and, at times, clinically sharp way. Tokarczuk’s writing brings to mind great authors of Balkan and East European Literature. I found similarities to Daša Drndic and Dubravka Ugrešic although, in my opinion, Tokarczuk lacks the darkness and impact of the two Croatian writers. She focuses on issues that reflect the strangest aspects of traveling and searching for the destination that would mean the end of a fulfilling journey. Or not. What happens when you don’t want to reach the end? When you feel that you can’t settle, that you don’t need a permanent basis?
‘’The apartment doesn’t understand what’s happened. The apartment thinks its owner has died.’’
There is a plethora of information in this beautiful book. Tokarczuk refers to the Recurrent Detoxification Syndrome, the need of the human mind to return to certain images no matter how disturbing or repulsive they may be. It’s what makes us freeze, unable to take our eyes off images that make our stomach turn. Another interesting point has to do with the apartment that is left behind, locked and dark, when we depart for a journey, leaving our shelter silent and lifeless. And what about the images that come to mind at the sound of a country’s name? What do we recall when we think of e.g. China, Russia, Spain, Lithuania, Serbia, Ireland and every other country of our planet? Each one of us forms a unique, personal picture based on experience, education, and various cultural influences.
The richness and power of Flights lie in the characters and their journeys. I was confused, moved and horrified by the story of Kunicki, a Polish businessman, whose wife and son disappear for three days and for unknown reasons while vacationing in a Croatian island. The story of a Russian woman, a mother in the most difficult position imaginable, who tries to relieve the pain of people who have no destination anymore made me think of loneliness and the horrible feeling that you’re slowly drifting away when you aren’t strong enough to fight. Nebojša’s thoughts on what war leaves behind and the moving journey of Chopin’s heart from Paris to Warsaw are outstanding moments.
I don’t particularly agree with a few of the writer’s views on people and God. They seemed too detached, almost nihilistic, but this is of little importance. Flights should be an undisputed reading choice, a book that can be read while on a journey, in an airport while the night is falling, in a hotel room overlooking the distant glimpses of the city lights. And if you don’t travel, do not worry. Olga Tokarczuk and Jennifer Croft are here to be your powerful guides.
‘’I’m a few years old, I’m sitting on the window sill, and I’m looking out onto the chilled courtyard. The lights in the school’s kitchen are extinguished; everyone has left. All the doors are closed, hatched down, blinds lowered. I’d like to leave, but there’s nowhere to go. My own presence is the only thing with a distinct outline now, an outline that quivers and undulates, and in so doing, hurts. And all of a sudden I know: there’s nothing anyone can do now, here I am.’’