Anatomy of a Prize Winner

Olga Tokarczuk – Flights (Fitzcarraldo, 2017)

Poland likes to shout about its successes. When that Polish guy used a narwhal tusk to take down a jihadi on Tower Bridge the Polish news talked about it for two weeks. They are a proud people, over there.

So I was surprised on my recent trip to Poland to learn that a Polish writer winning the 2019 Nobel Prize for Literature was not bigger news. Olga Tokarczuk, whose novels include Flights and Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead (both available in English from Fitzcarraldo), featured very little in their media.

She is against the government, and the government decides what’s news.

Although, in the classic post-communist style, the fact that Tokarczuk was missing from the news meant that everybody talked about her even more.

I decided to take Flights to Poland with me, it being a book about travel, and found, by pure circumstance, that my girlfriend’s mother, with whom we were staying, had just started reading the book too.

Its Polish title, Bieguni, is an archaic variant on the word “runners” and refers to a pre-Christian nomadic belief that one should always keep moving, that way the devil can’t catch up with you.

“Flights” only partly captures this meaning, but it works on another level, connecting the stories of dark age nomads fleeing the devil to murderers fleeing justice, and connecting flights of fancy with the many plane flights that fill the book.

The book is a collage novel. It has a framing device – an unnamed narrator who travels the world, chatting to strangers and noticing funny signage along the way – but the action of the book comes in the form of numerous short stories.

Some of these stories are interweaved. Anatomists play a large part in them, for example. A famous seventeenth century Dutch anatomist is shown passing his knowledge to his younger colleague. The Russian tsar uses the anatomists breakthroughs to have a loyal black retainer stuffed and mounted after he dies. A contemporary anatomist and fetishist tries to recreate the old techniques.

But the connections are slight and often trivial. Many of the stories simply come and go, leaving no traces in the rest of the writing. A Polish sailor who is arrested in Vietnam and learns English by reading Moby Dick is a funny one. The whole prison ends up speaking like salty seadogs. But it’s connection to the grander narrative is merely thematic.

The structure of the novel is in keeping with its contents and subject. Flights is up in the air. It is circling around, looking for a landing spot. Occasionally it touches down, shares a story, only to lurch back up into the narrative sky once again.

It makes good holiday reading. Lots of short sections. Although it can add to your disorientation.

By focusing on the human in transit, Tokarczuk conjures the no-places of travel and, through them, the sad truth that to become international is to lose all identifying characteristics. “Airports have more in common with other airports than with the countries they inhabit,” she notes. The same goes for motorways, travel hotels, and conference centres.

Increasingly, the whole world. I look out of the window at the communist-built tower blocks of Konin and understand that the Polish know what it means to be anonymised.

Perhaps globalisation will make a Konin of us all?

Against the anonymity, Tokarczuk delves for meaning in the specific and the rooted. Her obsession with anatomy comes in here. She recounts the discovery of the Achilles tendon. That something so physically present could lie hidden, just beneath the surface, until the 1640s, presents the body itself as a secret. We are each a closed and specific world.

A sultan, we are told, shirks his duties in the war room to visit his giant harem. Only the bodies of his girls seem real to him. The older the girls get, the less appealing, and so the higher up they are moved in the palace. It is as if, Tokarczuk writes in a beautiful bit of analogy, those at the top would simply disappear into the air.

The last that is seen of the sultan is his baggage train fleeing into the desert. He is carrying away a crowd of children. Contact with their youth will, he believes, will grant him immortality.

So much for the physical.

With its many sections and many stories, Flights can never approach a meaningful conclusion about the local and the global, about specific places and the flight away from them. Instead it demonstrates the impossibility of resolving these issues in a world where we are all now in transit ourselves.

We are limited to moments of poignance, glimpses of beauty, shocks, terror, and sudden love. We are all in a state of flight. Even rootedness itself is now a flight, a fleeing from the transient world, a flight from flights.

The most interesting story for our reading, bilingual as it ended up being, was one of Tokarczuk’s narrator’s own loose thoughts. She was thinking about English, about how everybody speaks it – Germans use it to speak to Hungarians, Polish use it to speak to Italians – and she wonders what it’s like to be English.

Is it strange to hear a room full of people speaking your language to each other, none of them being from your country? What is it like to have no secret language, no language that is “just for us”, that one can speak with a reasonable hope of not being understood by outsiders?

“I don’t know,” I said, when asked this by my girlfriend’s mother. “I can’t say I’ve ever thought of it that way.”

Ultimately, I think this is the great pleasure of reading Olga Tokarczuk’s writing. Not that she thinks new thoughts, but that shows you your old thoughts in a new and different way.

Now if only she would chase somebody down the street with a narwhal tusk, perhaps the ruling powers of her country would start listening to her.

– Joe Darlington 

Egg Bound and Angry

Sam Byers – Perfidious Albion (Faber & Faber) 

This novel has been out since 2018. I held back from reading it as I was writing something I thought might be close to it – I didn’t want to be influenced. As it turned out there was no need to worry, and the novel is surely even more essential as we begin the 2020s than it must have been in 2018.

The book opens at a party full of tossers – I do use the word lightly – who have decamped from London to somewhere fictional in East Anglia, to be tossers.

Here, the present is dead – ‘these are post-present times’. Here, without using the word, is postmodernism. The Latin ‘modo’ means now and so pomo means after-now, after the present. Byers manages to get all of this across without labouring it.

The people at the party mediate everything they do, moving out of London, walking in the countryside, they can’t do anything without turning it into a desperate, empty act of pseudo-psychogeography. They can’t, in fact, do anything that isn’t pseud.

For these mediasphere amphibians the distinction between hate clicks and like clicks has been erased by the simple and sheer desire for clicks. Therefore meaning is dead too – someone says that straight out at one point – and so here also is post-truth. This seems to confirm my hunch that pomo is shading into something much darker politically. Sam Byers seems to feel it too. Time seems to have stalled and we could go down the Mark Fisher cultural gravity hole here, but Perfidious Albion is funny, so let’s not. Later, perhaps.

Back at the tosser party, a fictional bunch of people called Rogue Statement collective have been nicknamed ‘the theory dudes’. They are very much like the real Everyday Analysis collective (EDA) who have quite a presence in Manchester. Rogue Statement collective find fascism everywhere. In iced buns, in socks. They’re a sort of neo-Frankfurt School for the post-Warhol age, and, obviously, they are all also tossers.

An artist works only in crayon and throws mud at walls. ‘To see if it sticks’ is magically written by not writing it at all: Byers pulls off a clear-cut communication with sublety and depth at the same time; he’s a great writer. Much of the weight is carried through light, economically-shaped details, ‘Jess popped to the toilet to tweet’, ‘I think your work may no longer be work.’

Byers sees his own gender and generation as tossers and can write them as such. Personally, I don’t think that’s a huge deal – it’s very obvious – but Byers’ sees women and can write them. Not many can. The friendship between Jess and Deepa is handled cleverly, again through details, they swap food and drinks, for instance. Jess, who poses online as multiple media activists, reads a sycophantic email from her own partner Robert to her alter-ego Byron Stroud. Her shock at seeing a layer of her intimate life that has been hidden from her is very well rendered.

Jess comes across Deepa when she is in a reverie that ‘is not to be shared’ and you know what it contains without being told. Deepa, quietly amused by the room full of tossers, in a corner of the room full of tossers, gives her a depth the others don’t have. You already know, in fact, these people. How shallow is our world when the silent and seeing, the quietly mirthful, are suddenly virtuous? I’ll say it again, Byers draws women well.

A guy turns up to attempt a guerilla reading. As I’ve just spent a year reading au plein air in Manchester I suddenly felt the prick of this book’s needles: this means this book is really good, not bad. Perhaps what pricks us overall is that Byers has got it right and we don’t like that.

I also contributed an article to the EDA website on behaving badly at supermarket checkouts. In my defense, it was humourous. I just looked to see if EDA are still going and surely yes, they are, the last post being ‘The Libidinal Economy and the General Election’. Take some Lyotard, smash it into what’s in front of you, then hang it online to dry. Trouble is, I then ran into the libidinal economy of the internet a few pages on in the novel, in a description of Deepa’s work in a private research institute.

Deepa has escaped Britain’s ‘failing, intellectually incapacitated universities.’ This book isn’t ‘neo-modern’ or ‘new sincerity’ – and not only because those literary-theoretical farts have barely any power in them – but because the return to meaning, belief and ‘real politics’ – the Corbynista dream – has not happened here and looks as though it never will. Prescient. Jess’s partner, Robert Townsend, with a rosy view of the working classes, defends a housing estate from predatory developers. But what he really defends and promotes is the image of himself caring about the estate, the working classes and their plight.

Gentrifiers binge on anti-gentrification articles, the sick tautologies of our time are mercilessly paraded before our hypocritical psyches. When I finally got around to reading Houellebecq properly, I realised that his popping of the European neoliberal bubble, with its roots in ‘the counterculture’ was accurate. But Houellebecq is also a tosser and a nasty one. I don’t think Byers is a tosser at all, but he skewers the shallow meniscus of the English neoliberal epoch very accurately too.

The tossers at the party the book opens with are all wanting, in a double sense, they are all full of nothing but lack, and they all desire something out of their reach. The trouble is, the reality that all of these people desperately want is already there. But you wouldn’t like that reality if you found it. If you’re deeply, abjectly poor with no way out, this whole world of authors writing about tossers talking to other tossers about bullshit means zero. That’s the world of the ‘real’ and ‘authentic’. You can’t go there on holiday, the only way you can go there at all is by making it so that you can never climb out again.

Byers tries to go there. In a decaying council estate flat a character called Alfred Darkin entrenches himself. There’s a parallel with Dickens, and Amis perhaps, just in the naming of this character. There’s a just-so ness to the descriptions here that some might object to. A lack of colour, a simplicity in the explanation of Darkin in his flat, reading the Faragesque Hugo Bennington in the Record newspaper. There’s the moment Robert Townsend enters Darkin’s flat to try to help him, and the smell that hits – fag smoke and urine – will raise leftwing sanctimony like Engels’ descriptions of Manchester as The City of Stink. Alfred Darkin automatically regurgitates the last rightwing newspaper article he has read and denies any counter-argument. Again, many will object.

Darkin’s world is black and white, it has little nuance, his wife was alive (white/light) and then gone (black/dark). We then step into Robert and Jess’s ‘educated middle class’ world and the tomato and chilli sauce is in vivid colour, their conversations are rainbows. But the infinite shades of nuance in early 21st c. living are becoming a hell here. Jess, once trolled and threatened with rape and violence, begins to secretly troll her own partner, Robert.

And so ultimately I don’t object, and I’m from a working class background. Darkin’s life may be the monochrome past and Jess and Robert’s the sleek psychedelic future, but their existence in an infinitely fluid, contextless drift is just a different hell to Darkin’s immobile, solid, heavy hades.

Trina, a character working in a department of the tech company Green, has found that becoming ‘permanent’, a secure employee, does not mean that at all. This is all of our hell. Even Hugo Bennington is flanked by a tosser and an arsehole. One is Teddy Handler, a lifehack guru the Green coders follow. Teddy Hunter makes spaceships out of Lego to help him brainstorm and he is a very convincing representative for our times. The more time you spent with Teddy the more ‘the border between the profound and the insufferably moronic began to feel dangerously porous.’

They all join up, the tech gurus love Teddy Handler’s ‘Teducationals’ and Hugo Bennington is compromised by his shares in the property firm who are trying to muscle council tenants out. Bennington then writes ‘for’ these oppressed left-behind working classes. The moment the fascists are out on the streets is genuinely chilling. Beyond Black Mirror.

This book is in a tradition and it is an important contribution to that lineage. One can move back in time from Amis to Dickens and then to Fielden and Smollett. Byers’ clear-cut communication can become cartoon, it is true. The private housing company, trying to displace tenants from the estate – including Alfred Darkin – is called Downton. But Byers’ strength here is going for the most loaded signifier. He has written a very sharp eighteenth century satire wearing the mask of the digital age. I will go so far as to claim that Byers diagnoses most humans at this point in history when he describes two tech guys as ‘weirdly eggbound and clenched with an anger they couldn’t name.’

Darkin’s interior monologue may be cut from cardboard, but the dreary monologues of false consciousness – and I don’t use that term lightly – are one dimensional. Deepa though, Deepa is just a little bit deeper. Byers’ whole picture is perhaps best judged when nearly everyone in it – of whatever social class – has been jig-sawn out of plywood, gaudily painted and propped up in a dead, wild west town. The queasy horror that the consumers of the Downton television fantasy are its victims, both historically and in terms of its immediate, energy-sapping illusion, comes to us just through this choosing of names. Names that initially appear rashly chosen. It’s a very unbeat use of ‘first thought best thought’, but it works. Somehow, just through this detail, the whole fucked-up plateau we live on, with its euromillions jackpot and One Show, with its pretentious, preening narcissists with MAs, is illuminated in a glamourless lightning flash. A sad little platform only precariously aloof from the merciless sea. How very real. How very now.

But actually, 2018, the year the book was published, at the pelting pace of politics today, is ages ago. Boris wasn’t in Number Ten when this book came out, but it seems to know he will be. If there is a parallel for Teddy Handler, it is surely Dominic Cummings.

I can’t give you an overview of how all of what I have described pans out, that would be way too big a spoiler. But this is an essential novel of historical record and future orientation.  

– Steve Hanson

New Criticism for an old-ish city

TO ALL SUBSCRIBERS OF OUR BLOG! Manchester Review of Books has been going since October, 2016, as a WordPress website.


We see a continuing need for a Manchester literature platform. I wrote very briefly for New Cross Review of Books and now we have Brixton Review of Books. They are great, but they are all in London and you know the LRB, and its London-centrism, and all of that. Our editorial policy is to talk to the city of Manchester from within the city, but looking outwards, to Europe, and to the world. Do I need to explain why? The general election of December 2019 seems to be part of this Manchester Review of Books re-constitution on paper.

The Manchester Review of Books website contained no pictures of books right from the start, just writing. We wanted it to be as unspectacular as possible from the beginning, to go against the grain of the pizza-vomits of colour reproducing the same banal visual content you see all over the web. The planned single broadsheet edition will continue in this vein.

We’re not making some statement about this being ‘radical’, far from it, we just wanted to pare it right down to something basic and useable. We may have a visual element from time to time, cartoons, visual poems, but not illustrations, not infantile pictures of books you can see in two seconds via a Google hit. Just the thing itself, not the glamourised consumer sheen.

We’re producing what might be seen as a very old-fashioned broadsheet. We’re fine with that, but it will be one trying to overcome the widespread death of adult thinking. It will not be dumbed-down. It will begin very basically and develop slowly. It will contain lots of reading material for people whom we assume read a lot. If you want to call that ‘value for money’, feel free.

We are making changes though. We’re dispensing with our ‘only positive reviews, ignore the rest’ ethos which we have (largely) held until now. The vapid state of arts and culture needs a rebooted cultural criticism that isn’t afraid to speak and isn’t compromised.

Our back-of-a-fag-packet economics for moving into a print edition runs like this: On 500 copies per single-sheet issue, each issue costs 0.084 of a penny per issue. Call it a penny. We can get A5 envelopes for around a penny. Second class post is 61p. Physically then, the thing costs 63-64p to be made and delivered to you – the largest cost is Royal Mail’s charge – but of course there’s our labour and organisation. If we say a pound per issue, plus a pound into our kitty, we can start by charging five pounds for a four-issue subscription.

This means we can build, very slowly and modestly, and with a few subs upfront we can pay the print costs for the first few issues. The first print run is £42 and so we need eight new subscribers to meet that first print bill. Let’s say ten, to figure in rising costs (they are). If we get well-established, we will then offer our first ten subscribers free lifetime subs.

Sound reasonable? We think it does.

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