Flights by Olga Tokarczuk

The Three Travel Questions: where are you from? Where are you coming in from? Where are you going?

Edition: Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2017, 410 pages.

Winner of the 2018 Man Booker International Prize

Shortlisted for the 2018 National Book Award for Translated Literature

Flights by Olga Tokarczuk, translated from the Polish by Jennifer Croft, is a celebration of travel and the wanderers of the world. I’ve always enjoyed travelling and have even had opportunities to live for short periods of time in different countries, so this theme is very dear to my heart.

Flights is one of those novels that is difficult to categorise. It is a mix of essays, short stories and personal musings on the topic of travel and mobility, interspersed with discussions of human anatomy. Tokarczuk draws an interesting parallel between the mapping of the world and the study of the human body.

Just like the characters in the novel, the narrative seems to be constantly in motion, shifting from one topic to another, and even jumping around in time. It’s quite fragmented but, at the same time, all the different story threads seem to be joined under the thematic umbrella of travel.

The narrator’s experience in an anatomy museum and meditations on the human body,  the science of preserving human body parts, and the use of anatomical models made from wax reminded me of certain passages in Compass by Mathias Énard, where the protagonist ruminates on the strange appeal and purpose of anatomical models. In fact, I believe that, at one point, the protagonist of Compass visits the same anatomy museum in Vienna. It must be quite a memorable place. 😜

Moreover, similarly to Énard in Compass, Tokarczuk discusses the importance of travel as a way to broaden your mind. Tokarzcuk examines the complexities of modern travel, the psychology behind it, and suggests that we should go and discover places for ourselves, without the influence of travel literature that robs us of the opportunity to form our own first impression of a place.

Describing something is like using it – it destroys; the colours wear off, the corners lose their definition, and in the end what’s been described begins to fade, to disappear. This applies most of all to places. Enormous damage has been done by travel literature – a veritable scourge, an epidemic. Guidebooks have conclusively ruined the greater part of the planet; published in editions numbering in the millions, in many languages, they have debilitated places, pinning them down and naming them, blurring their contours.

However, for some people, travel can also be a way to escape. One of the most memorable stories in Flights follows a woman who takes aimless trips around the city as a way to escape from the suffering of her home life. She meets a strange, shrouded woman who preaches a philosophy of rejecting materialism in favour of wandering the world.

Whoever pauses will be petrified, whoever stops, pinned like an insect, his heart pierced by a wooden needle, his hands and feet drilled through and pinned into the threshold and the ceiling. […] This is why tyrants of all stripes, infernal servants, have such deep-seated hatred for the nomads – this is why they persecute the Gypsies and the Jews, and why they force all free people to settle, assigning the addresses that serve as our sentences. […] What they want is to pin down the world with the aid of barcodes, labelling all things, letting it be known that everything is a commodity, that this is how much it will cost you. Let this new foreign language be illegible to humans, let it be read exclusively by automatons, machines. That way by night, in their great underground shops, they can organize readings of their own barcoded poetry. Move. Get going. Blessed is he who leaves.

Another interesting aspect of the book was how Tokarczuk discussed the concept of time, and how modern air travel can often distort our sense of time – how strange it sometimes feels to travel across different time zones. It’s the closest that we can get to time-travel.

This is a hard book to talk about because it is made up of by so many fascinating story threads. This is a very erudite, and often moving, read about the value of travel, of being in motion and leaving behind our own personal traces on the world. I highly recommend it and look forward to reading more of Tokarzcuk’s work.

What makes us most human is the possession of a unique and irreproducible story, that we take place over time and leave behind our traces.



Vernon Subutex, 1 by Virginie Despentes

Why are certain people determined to fuck up their lives while for others it seems so easy to do things the way they are supposed to be done?

Edition: MacLehose Press, 2017, 352 pages.

Shortlisted for the 2018 Man Booker International Prize

Vernon Subutex, 1 by Virginie Despentes, translated from the French by Frank Wynne, is the first book in a trilogy following Vernon Subutex, a middle-aged former record store owner with a serious Peter Pan complex. The novel could be described as a mix of High Fidelity by Nick Hornby and Michel Houellebecq, with a touch of Frédéric Beigbeder.

Vernon Subutex was once the proprietor of Revolver, a hip record shop in Paris that fell on hard times in the wake of the digital revolution. Vernon was forced to close the shop and ends up basically unemployable. Moreover, following the death of his rock star friend and benefactor Alex Bleach, Vernon also gets evicted from his apartment and is homeless, so he decides to reconnect with some of the people from his past. At the same time, a rumour spreads online that Vernon is in possession of the last recordings of Alex Bleach, so a group of people are on his tail in the hopes of making good money from the tapes.

The novel includes a vast cast of characters and their voices blend together to form a portrait of contemporary French society, set to the soundtrack of 80’s and 90’s rock music. The book is full of music references, so if you’re a fan of books that come with their own soundtrack, you might want to give this a go. All of the characters are bitter and self-absorbed people who were once part of youth culture but now find themselves stuck and alienated in their adult lives. However, instead of regretting some of their own life choices, they are resentful of the world for the lack of meaning in their lives. The book constantly switches between different perspectives and forces us to spend time in the minds of people that reflect the worst in society, and the book confronts us with opinions that are very problematic or just plain wrong.

The novel touches upon a lot of topical issues, but I felt that it essentially tries to examine the causes and effects of alienation, and how it leads to aggression and hate. Most of the other characters in this novel desperately try to cling to the past, the glory days of their youth, when they felt invincible and could shrug off any responsibilities and guilt of deviating from the “right” path. The novel seems to ask, what is the cause of their alienation? Are they responsible for it themselves, or it the fault of society, the government, social media, capitalism? The book doesn’t offer any clear answer, but it provides some effective examples of how alienation and hate erode the human soul. The novel really succeeds at showing the ugly side of modern society, and I think you have to be in the right mood to read about it. I can understand why this is such a polarising book.

[…] that unconscious ease that comes of being so young – still oblivious to the blows that will destroy parts of her. Past the age of forty, everyone is like a bombed-out city.

I’m curious, yet hesitant, to continue on with this trilogy because I’m still not sure if this book was just the set up for what will later become a brazen critique of contemporary society, or if the next two instalments in this trilogy just offer more of the same.


Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi

Edition: Oneworld Publications, 2017, 272 pages.

Shortlisted for the 2018 Man Booker International Prize

Set in 2005, Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi, translated from the Arabic by Jonathan Wright, is a fascinating and cleverly constructed portrait of war-torn Baghdad in the wake of the American invasion that includes subtle allusions to Mary Shelley’s gothic masterpiece Frankenstein.

Featuring a vast cast of characters from diverse backgrounds (the character list at the beginning of the book was much appreciated), the novel provides a glimpse into the lives of people, who try to lead normal lives amidst the violence and suicide bombings that have become an everyday background noise in Baghdad.

In this chaos, we meet Hadi, a junk dealer, who picks up stray body parts that are left on the streets of Baghdad in the wake of car bombings and stitches them together to create a human being in the hope that the complete corpse would be treated as a person and given a proper burial. However, through a series of coincidences, the corpse is reanimated from the soul of Hasib, a security guard who lost his life during another car bombing and, unable to locate his body, lodged inside Hadi’s creation, the so-called Whatsitsname. The creature then roams the streets of Baghdad at night, seeking to avenge the deaths of the victims whose body parts make up his body, so that they could rest in peace.

“With the help of God and of heaven, I will take revenge on all the criminals. I will finally bring about justice on earth, and there will no longer be a need to wait in agony for justice to come, in heaven or after death. ‘Will I fulfil my mission? I don’t know, but I will at least try to set an example of vengeance – the vengeance of the innocent who have no protection other than the tremors of their souls as they pray to ward off death.”

Similarly to the monster in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Whatsitsname feels misunderstood when people equate him to a criminal because he sees himself as a kind of harbinger of justice. At the same time, the elderly Christian woman Elishva views Whatsitsname as an answer to her prayers, since she believes that the creature has the soul of her missing son.

What stood out to me in this novel was how the author not only managed to write a complex and effective allegory for the never-ending cycle of violence in Iraq, but also created characters that aren’t just chess pieces that make the plot work, but have distinct personalities, goals, dreams, and inner demons. The novel never tries to manipulate with the reader’s feelings but instead casts a satirical lens on the horrors faced by the inhabitants of the city.

Whatsitsname soon becomes a media sensation, and a local journalist, Mahmoud al-Sawadi, is given the task to investigate and write a magazine article about the mysterious creature that is stalking the streets of Baghdad and terrifying its inhabitants. Through the connections of Ali Baher al-Saidi, the prominent owner and editor of the magazine,  Mahmoud also comes into contact with the Tracking and Pursuit Department, a strange special information unit, supposedly set up by the Americans, that employs astrologers, mediums, and soothsayers to investigate unusual crimes and make predictions about future crimes.

Eventually, Whatsitsname discovers that he needs to kill more people to replace his old body parts, and what initially started as a revenge mission against criminals to bring justice, soon turns into a seemingly never-ending killing spree where the lines between criminals and innocents become very blurred. Violence leads to even more violence and Whatitsname becomes a clever symbol of the vicious cycle of violence that plagues Iraq.

‘There are no innocents who are completely innocent or criminals who are completely criminal.’ This sentence drilled its way into his head like a bullet out of the blue. He stood in the middle of the street and looked up at the sky, waiting for the final moment when he would disintegrate into his original components. This was the realization that would undermine his mission – because every criminal he had killed was also a victim.

He also attracts a group of assistants and followers, who help him carry out his mission. However, they soon get involved in their own inner conflicts and begin to splinter into factions in a way that brought to mind the brilliant sequence from the 1979 Monty Python film Life of Brian in which a group of followers are squabbling over how to interpret a “message” from their Messiah.

I often see this novel marketed as a horror story, but I think this label is doing it a disservice, because people that will go into this expecting a scary story about a zombie who kills people on the streets of Baghdad, will most likely be disappointed. This is a literary novel about the effects of war that borrows elements from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and gives them a modern spin. One of my favourites of the 2018 Man Booker International Prize shortlist, Frankenstein in Baghdad is a novel that I definitely want to revisit sometime in the future.


Like A Fading Shadow by Antonio Muñoz Molina

Edition: Tuskar Rock Press, 2017, 319 pages.

Shortlisted for the 2018 Man Booker International Prize

Like A Fading Shadow by Antonio Muños Molina, translated from the Spanish by Camilo A. Ramirez, reimagines, with meticulous attention to detail, the brief time that James Earl Ray spent in Lisbon while he was on the run from the authorities following his assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968. Moreover, the account of Ray’s time in Lisbon also serves as a jumping-off point for a parallel narrative which delves into the author’s own memories of the first time that he visited Lisbon in 1987 as a 31-year-old aspiring writer, who was then living a kind of double life as a husband and father of two small children on the weekends in Madrid, and as a bachelor during the week in Granada, where he worked as a civil servant by day and frequented nightclubs at night.  We also learn that he is a jazz aficionado, who hopes to translate the aesthetic of jazz music into his writing and the book is scattered with his musings on the process of writing fiction. The novel then proceeds to follow these two narratives, using alternating chapters.

The chapters following James Earl Ray unfold as a police report that catalogues Ray’s every move, his various aliases, personal items, people that he met during his stay in Lisbon. This obsessive cataloguing soon becomes quite tedious and repetitive, but I suspect this was a deliberate choice by the author to make a point that detailed knowledge of even the most trivial minutiae about a person’s life can’t give us true insight into a person’s mind.

It is amazing how much you can learn about a person and still never truly know him, because he never said what was most important: a dark hole, a blank space; a mug shot, the rough lines of a facial composite based on disjointed testimonies and vague memories.

The parallel narrative focuses on the author’s personal memories of his escapades in Lisbon, while he was doing research for his breakthrough novel A Winter in Lisbon. I must admit that I struggled to remain interested in these chapters that describe his walks around Lisbon, during which he is preoccupied with extreme navel-gazing and philosophising about the writing process, while his wife is alone in Madrid caring for a toddler and a newborn baby. He just comes off as an incredibly selfish dude-bro.

I was discovering a capacity I had rarely exercised in my life: the ability to radically change my circumstances and immerse myself in the unexpected; to forget entirely what I had left behind; to lose myself, like in a jungle or a submarine, in the things that really interested me, a novel, a film, a song, an emotion; to disappear entirely, without a trace, not even a thread that could guide me back, no remorse, no nostalgia, no memory. I did not miss anyone and no memories could distract me from that present. I was not thinking about my wife, who was overwhelmed taking care of the two children. I was not thinking about the three-year-old boy nor the baby who that very same day was turning one month old. I was not thinking about my job in Granada that awaited me in just three days.

Where the novel truly succeeds is painting a vivid portrait of Lisbon. It’s full of beautiful descriptions of the city that made me daydream about sitting in a café in Lisbon, enjoying a cup of great Portuguese coffee and a pastel de nata.

My eyes have never seen light like the one that washes over Lisbon; its colors have an attenuated quality: the blue of the sky and the red of the roof tiles, the blues and greens and yellows and ochers of walls punished by the maritime weather; the brightness of the azulejo tiles; the red, open flowers on the tops of tropical trees with trunks like the backs of elephants.

At the same time, I was constantly questioning the purpose of mixing these two parallel story threads of James Earl Ray and the author as a young man. I found the chapters that tried to image James Earl Ray’s mental processes during his time in Lisbon, where he fled in the hopes of receiving a visa to then try his luck as a mercenary in one of Portugal’s colonies in Africa, were quite compelling. HHhHpbHowever, I felt that the chapters focusing on the author’s personal memories had very little to do with the James Earl Ray story and constantly interrupted the rhythm of the novel. Based on the synopsis, I was expecting that the novel would have a similar narrative structure to HHhH by Laurent Binet, a fascinating story of heroism that reconstructs the events of Operation Anthropoid in 1942, mixed with the author’s self-reflection on the writing process and the genre of historical fiction.

Sadly, this book didn’t meet my expectations, however, one of the highlights of Like A Fading Shadow were the sections, in which the author references different works of literature, film, music and art and suggests that parallel to real cities, there are fictionalised versions of  these cities, created by artists, that only exist in the specific pieces of art.

In a somewhat similar way, Muños Molina seems to also suggest that people have fictionalised counterparts as well, which are created and shaped by the observations and perceptions of other people. The author ruminates on the idea that, as much as we can learn about a person through research, we can never truly know another person, so every attempt that is made by an author to view the world through someone else’s eyes is essentially doomed to failure. It is clear that the author did a massive amount of research on James Earl Ray while writing this novel, however, the amount of detail presented in this book made it a slog to get through. Overall, the novel had some interesting ideas about literature and the act of trying to reconstruct events from someone’s life, but ultimately I felt that it lacked a clear focus. Moreover, the way the author decided to end the story felt like another diversion, which only reinforced my feeling that the two story threads didn’t work that well together, but I’m nevertheless intrigued to try something else by Muños Molina.


The Stolen Bicycle by Wu Ming-Yi

In the world I grew up in, the word a person used for ‘bicycle’ told you a lot about them. Jiten-sha (‘self-turn vehicle’) indicated a person had received a Japanese education. Thih-bé (‘iron horse’) meant he was a native speaker of Taiwanese, as did Khóng-bîng-tshia (‘Kung-ming vehicle’), named for an ancient Chinese inventor. Tan-ch’e (‘solo vehicle’), chiao-t’a-ch’e (‘foot-pedalled vehicle’) or tsuhsing-ch’e (‘auto-mobile vehicle’) told you they were from the south of China.

Edition: Text Publishing, 2017, 416 pages.

The Stolen Bicycle by Wu Ming-Yi, translated by Darryl Sterk, is another book on the 2018 Man Booker International Prize  longlist that blurs the lines between fiction and non-fiction and follows the narrator who sets out to investigate the mysterious disappearance of his father and this quest takes us on a journey through the history of Taiwan in the 20th century. We learn that his family’s history is closely linked to the history of the bicycle industry in Taiwan. Bicycles have always played an important role in the everyday life of the people and were also used for military purposes during World War II. The narrator is obsessed with antique bicycles and tries to uncover the mystery of what happened to his father’s bike that disappeared along with his father.

From what I’ve read about the author’s previous work, it seems that the narrative style of blending fiction and non-fiction is nothing new to his work, and he even discusses the difference between fiction and reality in this novel:

I found out early in my career as a writer that fiction and reality are so closely intertwined that any textual element is suspect—but treating anything in a novel as true is dangerous. For instance, in the novel Meme wrote to ask me about, the narrator was the son of the owner of an electrical appliances store. But actually my family ran a tailor’s shop, and later sold jeans, too. The truth of a novel does not depend on facts. That’s something any novelist understands. But a novel’s overarching structure is supported by what might be called ‘pillars of truth’.

I must admit that I feel conflicted about this novel. On the one hand, I learned a lot about Taiwan’s 20th-century history, but, on the other hand, I found the narrative to be very fragmented and quite confusing, and at times it was hard for me to keep track of who was speaking and what were the connections between the characters. Moreover, even though I enjoy cycling, I thought there was way too much information about bicycles. At first, the chapters on the history of bicycles felt like a unique and interesting aspect of the book, and I got the impression that the bicycle would serve as a symbolic object that ties together the various story threads, and, to some extent, it did, however, very soon the constant interludes chronicling the history of bicycle industry in Taiwan and describing the specific features of the various bicycle models simply became tedious.

Within the course of the narrator’ quest to discover what happened to his father’s bicycle, the book takes many detours. At one point, we learn about the history of the butterfly handicraft industry in Taiwan that produced collages from layers of butterfly wings. I’m sure that the imagery of this morbid form of art will stay with me for a long time.

The book also takes us to the battlefields of World War II. Cheng’s father, like many Taiwanese men, went to Japan during the war to build fighter planes for the Japanese military. The novel also informs us about the role of bicycles in the War, particularly focusing on the important role played by a squad of soldiers on bicycles in the campaign in Burma.

Another very harrowing story thread vividly describes the horrific mistreatment of zoo animals during the WWII. Fearing that the animal cages might be damaged during a bombing of the city, so all the zoo animals were executed, and the book describes in detail the cruel methods that were used to “deal” with this problem.

I can understand why so many people love this book. It’s a multilayered exploration of family dynamics, the nature of memory, the effects of war, and it gives a great glimpse into Taiwan’s complicated history, but, perhaps because of the constant shift between the different story threads, the novel never really came together for me. I found some of the parts very gripping, but there were also moments when I started losing interest and had to convince myself to push through, so, overall, it was a very uneven reading experience, and I felt that the book would have been more effective if it was shorter. However, based on other reviews that I’ve read, I seem to be in the minority who struggled to connect with this book, so I would still recommend that you give it a try.


The World Goes On by László Krasznahorkai

No, history has not ended, and nothing has ended; we can no longer delude ourselves by thinking that anything has ended with us. We merely continue something, maintaining it somehow; something continues, something survives.

Edition: Tuskar Rock Press, 2017, 320 pages.

Shortlisted for the 2018 Man Booker International Prize

Many reviewers have pointed out that the short story collection The World Goes On by László Krasznahorkai, translated from the Hungarian by John Batki, Ottilie Mulzet and George Szirtes, might not be the best place to start exploring Krasznahorkai’s bibliography, however, this was my first introduction to his writing, and these stories have convinced me that I definitely need to read more of his work.

The collection includes 21 stories, a mix of shorter and longer pieces, most of which are written in Krasznahorkai’s characteristic prose style of single, continuous sentences that supposedly more closely reflect the way our minds actually work. These are bleak visions of the world and the thematic thread that seems to connect most of these stories is the desire to escape.  The characters in many of these stories exist in a constant state of frustration and are yearning to escape something, but they somehow find themselves stuck in the same place. For some reason the imagery and dreamlike quality of some of the stories immediately reminded me of David Lynch’s works which often try to illuminate the strange and undefinable in the very mundane, however, Krasznahorkai’s seems to have a much bleaker view of the world.

In one of the most notable pieces in the collection, Nine Dragon Crossing, a simultaneous interpreter, who yearns to visit a waterfall, wanders the streets of Shanghai on foot and gets stuck inside the very complicated intersection of elevated roads called Nine Dragon Crossing. This leads him to ponder the fate of language and the place of human beings in an increasingly modern world that seems to be speeding up more and more. Moreover, Krasznahorkai’s dense, looping prose style feels like a protest against the fast flow of information that we must adapt to.

[…] the desired speed was attained, and only he – and here it was the simultaneous interpreter speaking again, the livid-faced condemned man of Nine Dragon Crossing – only he alone didn’t understand why we needed such speed, speed that moreover would soon have to be increased, god is there no one, he now cried into the artificially illuminated firmament of Nine Dragon Crossing, no one who understands that we simply don’t need such speed?! […].

World Goes On.jpg

Another highlight of the collection is the story That Gagarin, which speculates on the effects that the first space mission in 1961 had on the life of Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, and reflects on a possibly deeper meaning of Gagarin’s words upon seeing the Earth from space: “I see Earth. It is so beautiful.” An emotionally moving story that I consider to be one of the strongest pieces in the collection.

In the evocative Journey In A Place Without Blessings, a diocesan bishop addresses the congregation for the very last time while disassembling the church because they have failed to understand and follow the Scriptures. A story that is powerful in its simplicity.

Some of my other favourites from the collection are György Fehér’s Henrik Molnár, Wandering – Standing, He Wants to Forget, Universal Theseus, and I Don’t Need Anything From Here, a one-page monologue that I think best describes a sentiment shared by most of the protagonists of these stories who yearn to transcend this world:

[…] I would leave this earth and these stars because I would take nothing with me, because I’ve looked into what’s coming, and I don’t need anything from here.


The Man Booker International Prize 2018 Shortlist

First of all, congratulations to all the authors and translators that made it onto the 2018 Man Booker International Prize shortlist!

The full 2018 Man Booker International Prize shortlist is as follows:

  1. Vernon Subutex 1 by Virginie Despentes (France) (translated by Frank Wynne) (MacLehose Press);
  2. The White Book by Han Kang (South Korea) (translated by Deborah Smith) (Portobello Books);
  3. The World Goes On by László Krasznahorkai (Hungary) (translated by John Batki, Ottilie Mulzet & George Szirtes) (Tuskar Rock Press);
  4. Like a Fading Shadow by Antonio Muñoz Molina (Spain) (translated by Camilo A. Ramirez) (Tuskar Rock Press);
  5. Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi (Iraq) (translated by Jonathan Wright) (Oneworld);
  6. Flights by Olga Tokarczuk (Poland) (translated by Jennifer Croft) (Fitzcarraldo Editions)

MBIP1.jpgI must admit I’m a bit surprised by the shortlist. I wouldn’t say I’m disappointed but I was really hoping that two of my favourites from the longlist – Die, My Love by Ariana Harwicz and The 7th Function of Language – would make the cut.

So far, I’ve read three of the shortlisted titles – The White Book,  The World Goes On and Frankenstein in Baghdad. Of these three, I would say that Frankenstein in Baghdad should win, but I’m looking forward to reading the remaining three that all sound very interesting, and any one of these could still become a new favourite.

What are your thoughts on the shortlist?

Happy reading!