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