The best place to start talking about a book as slippery and transient as Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights is with the title itself, especially since it’s in translation from the author’s native Polish. I’ll try not to spoil too much throughout this review, but I’m not sure the fragmentary nature of the novel even allows for the existence of spoilers — anyway, as you might expect from a collection of “philosophical ruminations on modern travel,” there are a number of literal airplane flights throughout the book. But that’s assuming far too concrete of a relationship between the parts of this work and its whole. Like I said, meaning, feeling, significance, and even concrete facts are slippery throughout the many stories found here. One could say they’re flighty.
The original title in Polish, beguny, more literally means “runners” and refers to a sect of Eastern Orthodox Christians called Old Believers, who often had to flee persecution from state powers in recent centuries and actually believed that constant movement across the earth was a way to evade the devil’s influence. There was no doubt in my mind when reading this 2007 work that Olga Tokarczuk, Flights author and 2019 Nobel Laureate in Literature, believes traveling to be a spiritual act, or at least provides people with a path to spiritual insight — insofar as the connotation of “spiritual” can be understood as those kinds of feelings and experiences that elude our rational explanation. This kind of wonder at the almighty’s omnipotence and acceptance of our earthly limitations is a major theme in Eastern Orthodoxy (see the concept of foolishness for Christ).
Does that mean Tokarczuk thinks of all travelers as fools, or at least as people who are running from something? The answer is… yes and no. There are characters throughout these vignettes whose accused foolishness is the main focus of their story, and yet the reader is given no indication whether to deride or pity them for this foolishness — just because the people around them think of them as fools, does that make it so? Take for instance the story of Kunicki, a man whose wife and child mysteriously disappear on a small Croatian island for a number of days, only to reappear with no satisfactory (to him) explanation of what happened or where they went. While conducting their searches, the local people scoff at his family’s vanishing: this place is too small, people can’t just up and disappear here, they say. You’re crazy.
When Tokarczuk returns to Kunicki’s story later in the book, the family is back together in Poland, albeit as strangers. Kunicki is suspicious of every move his wife and child make, even following them about their daily lives while he’s supposed to be working, just sure that something is amiss. Every time he confronts them about what happened, both launch into rages of dismissal at his inquisition. His wife says they simply took shelter in a cottage for three days, eating fish freshly caught from the sea. Then they came back. There’s nothing more to it and no less.
In another story, a Muscovite woman abandons her unhappy home life with a chronically ill child, uncaring husband, and an overbearing mother in law — not to go backpacking across the globe as you might suspect, but to ride the city’s extensive subway system in perpetuity. Tokarczuk masterfully stifles the reader’s temptation to judge this woman by letting us in on the comfort she garners from this strange new life. The longer she rides the trains with no destination, the more kindred spirits she begins to recognize, and the more in tune she becomes with how the citizens commute. She starts to smell and runs out of money, but unable to explain that she’s not actually homeless, people buy her food and subway tickets. She feels seen, pitied, and untethered, when before she felt ignored, taken for granted, and stuck. Her life becomes all about watching other people go about their own, as if you can hear Tokarczuk asking you, is that all that travel is?
Balancing questions like these on a knife’s edge, Tokarczuk maintains rigorous pace throughout the 100-plus stories of this 400-odd page book by simultaneously attacking and comforting the reader; making you feel alone, while also part of something much larger than yourself. I read this book rather slowly, over the course of two months or so, because I would pause after almost every story to ask, “how much of myself do I see in this character? Is that how I travel?” In larger, more continuous narrative works of fiction, with a cast of characters who will all get their chance at being fleshed out, this might not occur so pointedly. But Flights leaves plenty of room for the reader to insert oneself, thereby becoming an introspective work that forces you into introspection whether you like it or not. Perhaps the same could be said of travel, and that was the author’s intention all along.
The Flights mechanism of introspection is rather on the nose, in that many of the stories are more expressly concerned with human anatomy than with travel; planes, trains, and automobiles are still present, but take a backseat. There are several works of historical fiction, namely about Dutch anatomist Philip Verheyen’s discovery of the Achilles tendon (and his descriptions of phantom limb) and Frederic Chopin’s sister Ludwika, who was tasked with returning his embalmed heart to his native Poland for burial. Unnamed travelers in other stories make pilgrimages to anatomical museums around the world, obsessing over the many ways the human body can be cross-sectioned or our central systems can be isolated for display. In all these tales, there is an underlying tone of desperation: where in the body is this feeling located? To long for things? To know what “home” is?
There is also the universal theme of preservation: many of these characters devote their life’s work to finding the perfect chemical mixture in which to embalm limbs and organs, that they might never decay. Capturing and collecting envious rare ‘specimens’ is of such repute that a Tsar of Russia purchases and attempts to transport one scientist’s collection back to St. Petersburg’s palaces, only for it to be lost at sea. While some of the finer details in these stories are gruesome and even difficult to read, they provided a surprisingly natural segue to probably my favorite vignette of all, only a page long. A young Serbian taxi passenger asserts that, “every stay in any place betrays the quiet ubiquitousness of the dead… Which is why to people on trips everything seems new and clean, virginal, and in some sense, immortal.” The man’s name, Neboijsya, sounds much like an imperative command in Russian: do not be afraid.
Therein lies the trick of travel, and of this book. Everything must come to an end: expire, decay, wither. The human body is no exception. The world is not waiting on you to make a decision about whether you will travel or stay right where you are. But sitting still, you may become aware that the clock is ticking. If that’s something you can’t handle, I guess you better run.
Want more book recommendations from our team? Read about 10 books that shaped the way we travel.