Books Culture

The world in your head: A review of Flights by Olga Tokarczuk

These days, the thing I want most in literature is escapism. I want to go somewhere else, be somewhere else. Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights allows us to do this; she perfectly encapsulates a character, a place, or concept, within as little (at times) as two paragraphs. Her style feels dream-like and yet completely grounded; we are firmly in the real world, but the fragmentary nature of the novel makes us feel like we are constantly travelling through magic, or across dimensions, to a new place and a new story. Tokarczuk shifts seamlessly between third-person fiction, almost-personal essays, lectures, letters, and historical fiction.

It is a novel in which small things mean everything and big things mean nothing. The broad implications of Enlightenment investigations into the human body are less important than the psyche of those who reveal it to us; the Flemish anatomist who studies his own amputated leg, haunted by his phantom limb, is more significant than Vesalius, who began the search into the human body which Verheyen picks up. Big changes don’t matter because the small things don’t change at all. Time means little: “how is 1946 any different from 1976 here, or 1976 from 2000?” The world has obviously changed a lot since then, but have people changed? Questions of the morality of Francis I keeping the skinned and preserved body of black courtier Angel Soliman might feel close to home, with the recent news that Belgium will finally return the remains of Congolese leader Patrice Lumumba to his family. Racism and the impacts of colonialism remain obviously relevant today. In the same way, Annushka in modern Moscow, travelling the subway to escape her oppressive home life, is a victim of patriarchal oppression in the same way that Charlotta Ruysch is. Both are convenient helpers to the men in their lives, invisible and unremembered.

In Flights, Tokarczuk is showing life stories in vignettes about people isolated not only by racial or gender oppression, but by their location. Eryk, the increasingly unstable ferryman, is isolated on the island he lives and works on; while he previously travelled the world, he is now “marooned”. He feels sometimes “lonely, like a child sent to his room looking out the window.” Location becomes a disconnect; his place in the world, both as a “supporting role” in the lives of others and as an inhabitant of a small island, becomes the cause of his emotional and mental degradation. His entrapment, in almost Gothic fashion, drives him mad.

But location also presents us with opportunity. Tokarczuk remarks upon the sailing of Captain James Cook to the continent of Oceania that “New Zealand was, it seems, the last land we invented.” Aside from the colonial implications of ‘inventing’ a country which had been home to the Māori for millennia, this idea of invention is also what is so appealing about travel. By going somewhere new, it seems that we are discovering for ourselves an entirely new place; going to Barcelona, Vancouver, or Beijing, all seem to offer us a chance to perceive the world in a different light. Maybe we can see this as a new way to look towards the world post-lockdown. Travel no longer seems like something you do for fun, but an experience which has been lost and regained. The places feel particularly out of reach, in a more profound way than when I couldn’t drop everything and go to Paris just because of little things like having class, being broke, and not speaking any French. Last year I went to Canada; this year I was meant to go to Portugal, Paris and Edinburgh. Next year, who knows? But the opportunities to go out and experience something different from the last few months of lying on the floor of my childhood bedroom listening to Kate Bush will not be taken lightly. It feels corny, but now every holiday is not simply a tick off a list of Places You’re Meant to Visit Before You Die, but an experience to be cherished for how it was taken away. Everything, big and small, matters.

And Tokarczuk sees this: it is not just the profound things, but the little things she draws attention to. Animals are god, airports a mecca of art and culture; great men are simply mad old fathers. Blau and Kampa think they have discovered mummified children, only to discover they are in fact poorly preserved stuffed chimpanzees. This blackly comic discovery could be a bleak look into the dark history of anatomy, but their main concern is that, had they been children, “they would have faced a complicated bureaucratic procedure and lots of issues.” Dead children are paperwork.

But Tokarczuk can surprise us in more hopeful ways, too. She makes beautiful and dramatic things out of what could be objectively boring; waiting for a flight turns into a lecture on travel psychology, a holiday turns into a search for a missing wife and son. In this time, where social activities will take a far different shape on Zoom, and simple things like going to the shops becomes an event, it is important to learn a valuable lesson from Flights: even the smallest things are significant, and beautiful. Tokarczuk tells us of how, in an effort to encourage expeditions to the North Pole, the ministers told their congregations that “any voyage could be considered an expedition to the North Pole, even a little trip, even just a ride in a public carriage.” She continues that “I suppose these days even the subway would have to count.” Any journey, any experience, can be profound, ground-breaking, life-changing. Even the smallest things can mean something, if we need them to.

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Lily Down

Lily is a second year English student at Mansfield College and a writer of fiction. She reads anything from classic horror to early modern history. She also likes to play guitar, and force her friends to watch Avatar: The Last Airbender.