If you’re going to travel in 2019, take this novel with you. One reviewer said that every hotel ought to put a copy of it on the bedside table in every room. It is about traveling, curiosity, and improving how you observe and learn.
Originally published in Polish in 2008, it was translated into English in 2017. It then won the Man Booker International Prize in 2018 and was on the long list for the National Book Award for translated literature.
I love this book. It reinvents the novel. There is no one plot line. It contains short stories, discourses, history, and essays – all seemingly unconnected yet expertly threaded together. It leaps back and forth in time and mingles fact and fiction.
The original title in Polish is Bieguni, who were a fictional group of Slavic wanderers who sought salvation in constant motion. They rejected settled life, much like the traveling yogi, wandering dervishes, or itinerant Buddhist monks who survive through the kindness of strangers. Tokarczuk writes, “Fluidity, mobility, illusoriness – these are precisely the qualities that make us civilized. Barbarians don’t travel. They simply go to destinations or conduct raids.”
The theme of travel and mobility is explored through multiple vignettes. One is of Kunicki, a young husband on a holiday on a Croatian island, whose wife and son suddenly disappear when they stop near a vineyard. Another vignette tracks the journey of Chopin’s heart in a jar as it is illegally carried by his loving sister after his death in Paris back across the border to his native Warsaw. A third vignette follows a Polish expatriate from the West Coast of the US, who returns to Poland at the request of her high school sweetheart. He is terminally ill and asks her to help him end his life with poison. Still another vignette tells of a woman on a cruise in the Greek isles with her older husband, a professor of classics, who lectures on board the ship but has a heart attack.
The travel theme is enriched by discourses on guidebooks, travel journals, travel agencies, pilgrimages, maps, hotel lobbies, airports, and the advantages of each mode of travel (sleeper trains vs. planes vs. cars).
She sees a slogan plastered on a glass wall: “Mobility is reality.” Then she wryly reveals, it was just an ad for mobile phones.
Tokarczuk also explores the notion of travel psychology, where you are moving through time and time zones, through space and from place to place. She distinguishes between circular time, a sense of time characteristic of farmers in recurring seasons, and linear time, more characteristic of merchants and nomads.
This notion leads to a powerful vignette of a Russian woman who cares for her severely ill son. She suddenly starts riding the Moscow metro and spending time with the homeless, including one seemingly crazy woman, a seer who shows her an escape from a life of suffering: “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…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.”
The theme of curiosity is explored in other vignettes about anatomy and the human body. One is about the Flemish anatomist Filip Verheyer, who dissected his own amputated leg and drew pictures of what he found, discovering the Achilles tendon in the process. Another is about a Cabinet of Curiosities, where visitors can see a salamander with two tails, oddly- shaped apples, and a fetus with one head and two bodies. And, interspersed throughout the novel are letters from the daughter of an 18 th century man from North Africa who was kidnapped as a slave, taken to Austria as a sort of pet for the Emperor, but who, because of his ability, became a trusted courtier and diplomat. However, after his death, his body is skinned, stuffed, and put on display by the Emperor’s son because he is black. The daughter begs the Emperor to release the body and allow a decent burial.
In case your reaction is to ask why the author doesn’t connect all these stories into a normal novel, one of Tokarczuk’s characters asks teasingly, “Wouldn’t it be better to fasten the mind with a clip, tighten the reins, and express myself not by means of stories and histories, but with the simplicity of a lecture, where in sentence after sentence a single thought gets clarified, and then others are tacked onto it in the succeeding paragraphs? No, that’s not her method or her genius.”
Through it all, Tokarczuk teaches us to train ourselves to observe more attentively, to see more clearly and fully, to connect the hidden meanings and rhythms, and to experience life on the move more deeply. As her narrator says in the book’s opening pages, where she is drawn to the Oder River but remembers Heraclitus’ aphorism: “You cannot step into the same river twice.” Travel is like that river.— Ran Coble
WINNER OF THE NOBEL PRIZE IN LITERATURE
WINNER OF THE MAN BOOKER INTERNATIONAL PRIZE
NATIONAL BOOK AWARD FINALIST FOR TRANSLATED LITERATURE
A visionary work of fiction by "A writer on the level of W. G. Sebald" (Annie Proulx)
"A magnificent writer." — Svetlana Alexievich, Nobel Prize-winning author of Secondhand Time
"A beautifully fragmented look at man's longing for permanence.... Ambitious and complex." — Washington Post
From the incomparably original Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk, Flights interweaves reflections on travel with an in-depth exploration of the human body, broaching life, death, motion, and migration. Chopin's heart is carried back to Warsaw in secret by his adoring sister. A woman must return to her native Poland in order to poison her terminally ill high school sweetheart, and a young man slowly descends into madness when his wife and child mysteriously vanish during a vacation and just as suddenly reappear. Through these brilliantly imagined characters and stories, interwoven with haunting, playful, and revelatory meditations, Flights explores what it means to be a traveler, a wanderer, a body in motion not only through space but through time. Where are you from? Where are you coming in from? Where are you going? we call to the traveler. Enchanting, unsettling, and wholly original, Flights is a master storyteller's answer.
About the Author
Olga Tokarczuk is one of Poland's most celebrated and beloved authors, a winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature and the Man Booker International Prize, as well as her country's highest literary honor, the Nike. She is the author of eight novels and two short story collections, and has been translated into more than thirty languages.
Praise for Flights:
"What’s in a novel? This Man Booker International Prize winner reads like a rigorous response to that question in the best, most edifying (and maddening) way…Magnificently translated from the Polish by Jennifer Croft, Flights has the scattered intimate quality of a personal diary, its magic wedded to its singularity. It’s an unexpected, funny journey into that most elusive of places — the human condition." –Entertainment Weekly
“A revelation … Flights is a witty, imaginative, hard-to-classify work that is in the broadest sense about travel…. In this risky, restlessly mercurial book, Tokarczuk has found a way of turning…philosophy into writing that doesn't just take flight but soars.” – NPR’s “Fresh Air”
“A beautifully fragmented look at man’s longing for permanence … ambitious and complex.” —Washington Post
“It’s a busy, beautiful vexation, this novel, a quiver full of fables of pilgrims and pilgrimages, and the reasons — the hidden, the brave, the foolhardy — we venture forth into the world …In Jennifer Croft’s assured translation, each self-enclosed account is tightly conceived and elegantly modulated, the language balletic, unforced.” —The New York Times
“A writer on the level of W. G. Sebald.” –Annie Proulx
“Tokarczuk’s discerning eye shakes things up, in the same way that her book scrambles conventional forms... Like her characters, our narrator is always on the move, and is always noticing and theorizing, often brilliantly.” —The New Yorker
“There's no better travel companion in these turbulent, fanatical times.” —The Guardian
“Dive in beyond physical place to the mind of the traveler in this experimental collection of interwoven stories, essays, and musings as delightfully meandering as wanderlust itself.” –Fodor’s Travels
“Flights works like a dream does: with fragmentary trails that add up to a delightful reimagining of the novel itself.”—Marlon James
“This hypnotizing new novel about travel, movement, and the complexities of distance deserves a place on every bookshelf.” —Southern Living
“Provides food for thought about what makes us move and what makes us tick.… Travel may broaden the mind, but this travel-themed book stimulates it.” —Minneapolis Star-Tribune
“Take the time to settle into this unconventional narrative that is by turns startling, moving and profound.” –Dallas Morning News
“An unclassifiable medley of linked fictions and essays.… Reading it is like being a passenger on a long trip.... It’s amusing, exciting.... It moves... to moments of intense interest and beauty.” —Wall Street Journal
“A disorienting, intelligent, and unforgettable book.” –Bustle
“Prescient, provocative, and furiously comic.” —The New Statesman
“An expansive, probing and enigmatic novel of ideas…Chapters range from a few sentences to dozens of pages, creating a kaleidoscope of perspectives on the mutability and movement of humanity.” –amNewYork
“A graceful and philosophic meditation on travel.” –Newsday
“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.” –Los Angeles Review of Books
“An intellectual revelation… Flights seeks out bridges between the concepts of cosmopolitanism and cultural hybridity; between discoveries of affection and curiosity toward unknown cultures, and toward the intrinsic multiplicity of one’s own place of origin.” –Boston Review
“Flights is epic in its scope and mission. … [The novel] reads as a sprawling, surreal meditation on what it is to be alive in an increasingly transient world.” –Vox
“If a strictly linear narrative structure is obligatory to your definition of what makes for a ‘good book,’ I’d encourage you to set that requirement aside for a bit and consider this 2018 Booker Prize winner. … Themes and patterns will begin to emerge of lives and loves and a rocket ship ride through the swirl of stars that is us. An added bonus: Jennifer Croft’s translation (from Polish) is a joy to read and a template for a translation master class.” –The Millions
“Deftly explores, in limpid, captivating vignettes, the spaces we inhabit—bodies, geographies, the expanse of the page—and the loves, fears, and wonder that inhabit us.” –Literary Hub
“An indisputable masterpiece.” –Publishers Weekly, starred review
“This host of haunting narratives teases the mind and taunts the soul... exhilarating.” —Library Journal