On May 22, Olga Tokarczuk won the Man Booker International Prize for her book Flights (which first appeared in English in our Winter 2016 issue), translated into English by Jennifer Croft for Fitzcarraldo Editions. Tokarczuk is already a household figure in her native Poland where Flights was first published in 2007. Two of her other novels have been translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, but it is only now with Flights that she is becoming a recognizable name for the English-speaking public. While the red Man Booker logo, signifying its triumph, will help it fly off the shelves in bookstores all over the United Kingdom, booksellers still face a tough challenge, for how do you summarize and sell a book like Flights?
Flights is categorized as a novel, although it eschews traditional plot and linear structure. At its most reductive, it can be described as a traveler’s diary through which an unnamed narrator contemplates and explores the roots of her nomadism. What follows is a compilation of fragments collected by the narrator throughout her journeys: short stories about home and travel, meditations on the human body, and even essays on sanitary pads, Wikipedia, and the English language. In the original Polish, the book is titled Bieguni, the name of a nomadic sect of Eastern European origin who believe the only way to escape the devil is by being in constant movement. And indeed, if the narrator of Flights has a life philosophy, it is this: “a thing in motion will always be better than a thing at rest.”
Yet some of the stories seem to hint at the contrary as tragedy unfolds from movement. In “Kunicki,” a Polish salesman goes on a family vacation to Croatia. In an island so small there is literally nowhere to hide, his wife and son disappear. His story is told in three parts, randomly situated throughout the length of the book, as Kunicki tries to piece together what happened. How can one disappear where there is nowhere to hide?
In the titular “Flights,” Annushka, the mother of a terminally ill child and wife of a husband suffering from PTSD, tries to answer this question. Aided by a member of the Bieguni sect, she decides to escape her home and spend her days riding the Muscovite train system, hoping to forget her address so as to never be tempted to return. She is doomed to fail, as the pull of home and family proves too strong.
In “Godzone,” a Polish immigrant who moved with her family to New Zealand as a teenager returns to Poland for the first time in decades at the request of her first love. During her journey back to her native home, she is hit by waves of nostalgia, only to find herself completely unmoved by the people and places she visits. In her case, home as an ideal was more welcoming than its reality.
While the thread of travel is woven throughout the text, another large portion of Flights is centered around characters, real and imaginary, that are obsessed with the human body. They collect organs and investigate embalming techniques, driven by a morbid desire to preserve human flesh for eternity. A Dutch anatomist loses his leg early in his career and is for the rest of his life tormented by ghost pains: he dissects his amputated leg to its most minute components discovering in the process the Achilles tendon. In another fragment, Chopin’s sister, Ludwika, straps a jar with her brother’s heart to her leg, hiding it from border authorities. It is the only way to bring Chopin’s heart to rest in his homeland, while the rest of his body is buried in France.
The bodies in Flights are in constant movement. Vacations. Pilgrimages. Research. The many guises that push humans toward travel. Between these human stories, the narrator returns with her meditations to highlight the ways in which travel can undermine our notions of time and space. Thus, during a flight from Irkutsk to Moscow that follows the path of the rising sun, passengers are described as stuck “in this one moment, a great, peaceful Now, vast as Siberia itself.” In the same way, meeting people in airplanes and trains, listening to their stories while fighting jetlag, life begins to lose its linearity as faces and stories bleed into each other. Flights beautifully encapsulates this feeling of timelessness that accompanies long flights and rides through its stories.
Between so much variety and fragmentation, Flights is hard to sum up or define. While there is usually a clear demarcation between the short stories and the essays, the narrator sometimes interferes to remind us of her presence, breaking the fourth wall. Yet, in this exercise in metafiction and in the non-traditional narrative structure is embedded a subtler message on what Tokarczuk wants to tell us about the way we understand life.
The last narrative fragment of Flights is “Kairos.” This story is told from the perspective of Karen, who is accompanying her husband, a famous Classicist, on a cruise around the Greek islands. Every summer the professor is paid to offer eager tourists lectures on Greek history and mythology as they tour the Aegean. Like most other short stories within Flights, “Kairos” is a self-contained story about travel and how we understand the past. But in one paragraph the perspective suddenly shifts: Karen fades into the background and our unnamed narrator jumps into the story, interfering with its autonomy: “I won’t record every day of the trip,” she tells us, “nor relay each lecture—in any case, Karen might have them published someday.”
This intrusion should not be surprising. While the narrator remains mostly absent from the short stories, this book is ultimately her travel dairy, her way of trying to describe and understand the world. It is a reminder not only that the narrator is always present, though we might not always feel it, but that no story, like no human life, exists in a vacuum. They are the memories of the people who lived through them, but they now belong to the narrator of Flights who collected these stories in hushed conversations during transatlantic flights, summer cruises, or short-term jobs.
Flights is made up of individual fragments, the same way human life and existence is made up of disparate fragments that do not always follow a linear structure. We are the stories we tell ourselves, stories we have picked up from many people during our lives and travels. Our lives are diaries of what has happened to us, but also what has happened to others. Tokarczuk has a phrase that describes this fragmentation of the human experience; this way of thinking of life as not-cumulative and chronological but more dispersed: constellationality, a philosophy that looks at human life as comprised of situations, without strict continuity.
In blurring the lines between different narrators and stories, Flights seeks to redefine how we think about life and the human experience. In “Everywhere and Nowhere,” a fellow-traveler explains how there are two theories of time: chronological and circular. Chronological time is linear: events follow each other and there is a clear progression, a movement towards something. We often think of human life that way, as an accumulation of past events and behavior that provides a blueprint with which to predict the future. But for the narrator in Flights, time should not be taken too seriously. Time is discrete and relative entity, like stories themselves, changing meaning and texture depending on perspective.
In the same vein, Tokarczuk shakes off the constraints of chronological time when writing. She does not try to lend continuity to the stories in Flights. Stories and meditations are divided, fragmented and scattered across the book in no discernible order, a constellation of texts that make up a whole novel. Every reader will have to connect the dots, deciding, as in their own lives, what cohesive narrative, if any, the book is trying to tell. Flights is a novel with a narrative structure that tries to mirror human experience.
Flights won the Man Booker International because it is a beautiful book, truly “fiction at its finest.” It is innovative, beautifully translated, and it stays with you long after you have turned the last page. I return to it periodically, trying to understand if I have truly solved this puzzle Tokarczuk presents.
Flights’s triumph is a win for both its author, translator, editor, and readers alike. Often, during awards season, there are those critics that decry the subjectivity of literary prizes. Such subjectivity is used as an argument against the prizes’ utility. Yet, the MBI gives readers that might not have the means to explore translated fiction in all its diversity, or perhaps don’t know where to start, a door into this world. Han Kang’s win in 2016 has increased demand for Korean fiction in translation and it seems likely the same will happen for Polish literature.
Just as importantly, Flights is a win for experimental fiction. Perhaps more so than any other book in this year’s longlist, Flights challenges how we think about the novel in both content and structure. It is not a difficult book to read once you pick it up, but its lack of plot and straightforward cast of characters might have turned off readers at first.
Finally, although this was perhaps not at the forefront of the judging panel’s concerns, Flights as a book feels like an antidote to current impulses toward radical nationalism and isolation. It is a book that explores the overlapping nature of human experience, the way we share stories and space, and makes a case for more porous borders, sometime explicitly so.
One of the characters in Flights, Josefine Soliman, writes three letters to Austrian Emperor Francis I pleading for the return of her father’s body, Angelo Soliman. Soliman, a black African, served as diplomat and confidant to Joseph II. After Soliman’s death, Francis cruelly stuffed his body and put it on display in his Museum of Curiosities. In her writing, Josefine encapsulate the political impetus of this novel:
The establishment of countries and of the boundaries between them demands of the human body that it remain in a clearly delineated space; the existence of visas and passports holds in check the body’s natural desire to roam and to move around.
It is often dangerous to extrapolate intent from an author’s literary works. But Tokarczuk herself does not shy away from controversy, nor is she subtle about her beliefs. While accepting her prize on May 22, she proudly stated: “I don’t believe in national literatures.” Therefore, it would not be too big of a leap to consider Tokarczuk as someone who, through her work, would advocate for a world with more porous borders that do not limit human movement through artificial constraints. To test this conclusion, we should not limit ourselves to Flights, but pick up more of what Tokarczuk has written, including two new books that are forthcoming with Fitzcarraldo editions.
Photo credit to Janie Aireye
Barbara Halla is Asymptote’s Editor-at-Large for Albania. Originally from Tirana, she currently resides in Paris where she works as a freelance editor and translator for French, Italian, and Albanian. She holds a BA in History from Harvard.
Read more about the Tokarczuk/Croft duo and the Man Booker International prize: