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 

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