Olga Tokar­czuk Flights

The Saturday Paper - - Books -

How does one ap­proach the art of travel writ­ing? Some writ­ers ob­serve them­selves as much as other peo­ple and places; oth­ers re­port on ad­ven­tures in ex­otic lo­cales; oth­ers look for the au­then­tic through the an­thro­po­log­i­cal. Flights, a travel book by the Pol­ish writer Olga Tokar­czuk, is an orig­i­nal. She has lit­tle in­ter­est in her­self, pon­ders the ex­pe­ri­ence of air­ports and ho­tels more than her ran­dom des­ti­na­tions, and is as likely to tell a fic­tional story as a his­tor­i­cal one. No­tably, Tokar­czuk re­jects guide­books in favour of the fa­mously hy­brid Moby-Dick and a fan­tas­ti­cal ac­count of for­eign lands by an 18th-cen­tury Catholic pri­est who never left home. She also of­fers an im­age of her creative prac­tice in her re­jec­tion of art mu­se­ums in favour of “the cabi­net of cu­riosi­ties, where col­lec­tions are com­prised of the rare, the unique, the bizarre, the freak­ish”.

As the metaphor of the cabi­net of cu­riosi­ties sug­gests, Flights has no sin­gle nar­ra­tive. It is a frag­men­tary col­lec­tion of re­flec­tions, ob­ser­va­tions, jokes, lists of strange facts, maps, char­ac­ter por­traits and sto­ries – some fic­tional, some his­tor­i­cal. In a lec­ture on travel psy­chol­ogy the au­thor hears at an air­port, the speaker ar­gues that “con­stel­la­tion, not se­quenc­ing, car­ries truth”. It is another im­age for the method of this clev­erly self-aware book. In fact, the method of con­stel­la­tion gives the book co­her­ence, grad­u­ally re­veal­ing the au­thor’s ob­ses­sion with death.

This is most ev­i­dent in sto­ries re­volv­ing around anatomists, vivi­sec­tion­ists, em­balmers and plas­ti­na­tors. In one of the frag­ments of his­tor­i­cal fic­tion that lit­ter this book, we learn how, af­ter the death of Chopin, his sis­ter Lud­wika smug­gled the com­poser’s heart, em­balmed in a jar, into Poland, strung by “leather straps to the scaf­fold­ing of the crino­line” of her dress and thus hid­den be­neath her skirts. Once across the bor­der, another woman, “rum­mag­ing around in lace, drew out the jar safely and handed it to Lud­wika with the ges­ture of some­one hand­ing a mother her new­born child”.

The sto­ries with­out his­tor­i­cal roots also re­veal a pro­found con­cern with mor­tal­ity, which is, for Tokar­czuk, a con­cern with the ma­te­ri­al­ity of bod­ies. In a story called “Kairos”, an 81-year-old pro­fes­sor, who had mar­ried a younger woman “as the air was leak­ing out of his first mar­riage”, un­der­takes a lec­tur­ing job on a cruise ship in the Greek

is­lands. The story cul­mi­nates with an as­ton­ish­ing de­pic­tion of a stroke, which is de­scribed as an era­sure of a world: … the crim­son in­ner ocean of the pro­fes­sor’s head rose from the swells of blood-bear­ing rivers and grad­u­ally flooded realm af­ter realm – first the plains of Europe, where he’d been born and raised. Cities dis­ap­peared un­der­wa­ter, and the bridges and dams built so me­thod­i­cally by gen­er­a­tions of his an­ces­tors. The ocean reached the thresh­old of their reed-roofed home and boldly stepped in­side. It un­furled a red car­pet over those stone floors, the floor­boards of the kitchen, scrubbed each Satur­day, fi­nally putting out the fire in the fire­place …

Shorter anec­dotes are also of­ten given a co­her­ent place in the book through the com­mon theme of death. When Tokar­czuk vol­un­teers to be laid over at a ho­tel be­cause of an over­booked flight, she finds her­self hav­ing din­ner in the ho­tel restau­rant with a Swedish woman, who ex­plains how the spirit of Christ can be found in an­i­mals: “Ev­ery day God sac­ri­fices him­self for us, dy­ing over and over, feed­ing us with his body, cloth­ing us in his skin, al­low­ing us to test our medicines on him so that we might live longer and bet­ter. Thus does he show his af­fec­tion, be­stow on us his friend­ship and love.” In another frag­ment, called “Net­work State”, Tokar­czuk’s phone can­not lo­cate a sig­nal, in a way that proves res­o­nant in the es­tab­lished con­text. Cross­ing over into a pre­mod­ern state, she is sud­denly and tran­scen­dently able to “see the stars and plan­ets, spread out evenly across the fir­ma­ment of the sky” and to hear “the mu­sic of the spheres”.

How­ever, Flights is never maudlin. Each story is en­livened by the sur­prise of daz­zling im­agery or comedic ( but poignant) asides. In “Board­ing ”, for in­stance, we read of a mid­dle-aged male pas­sen­ger who “looks like a guy who dis­cov­ered not so long ago that he’s not re­ally so dif­fer­ent from ev­ery­body else – thus at­tain­ing, in other words, his own en­light­en­ment”. In the frag­ment “Cleopa­tras”, the au­thor rides in a bus with “a dozen fully veiled women”, mar­vel­ling at their made-up eyes. A TV screens Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, and they watch how

“that lithe girl with the gleam­ing arms and thighs felled sol­diers who were all armed to the teeth”. There are, in­deed, many laugh­out-loud mo­ments, with Tokar­czuk show­ing not only an eye for in­con­gruity but also gifts in comic de­liv­ery. A pithy frag­ment called “Even” re­veals: “Driv­ing, I pass bill­boards that an­nounce in black and white, in English, ‘Je­sus loves even you’. I feel up­lifted by the un­ex­pected en­cour­age­ment; I’m only slightly alarmed by that ‘even’.”

In ad­di­tion to the de­fa­mil­iaris­ing tech­niques of hu­mour, Tokar­czuk uses the de­fa­mil­iaris­ing strate­gies of poetry to strik­ing ef­fect, in ways beau­ti­fully trans­lated by Jen­nifer Croft. In the se­ri­alised story about Ku­nicki, a man who mys­te­ri­ously loses his wife and child on a Croa­t­ian is­land, the flies in the empty coun­try­side are de­scribed as “quiet’s fa­mil­iar warp”. In a frag­ment called “In Pur­suit of Night”, the au­thor pon­ders the ac­tion of chang­ing chan­nels: “You hold the re­mote out like a weapon, and you take shots at the very cen­tre of the screen. Each shot kills one chan­nel, but then another fol­lows di­rectly on its heels.” Af­ter read­ing this book, you’ll likely never see the world the same again.

De­spite dwelling on our prover­bial “fi­nal des­ti­na­tion”, Tokar­czuk’s peer­less travel guide is ac­tu­ally a guide to liv­ing.

Ev­ery word, ob­ser­va­tion, re­flec­tion and story em­braces the im­por­tance of stay­ing mo­bile in thought as much as in be­ing, re­sist­ing what Tokar­czuk de­scribes as “that veg­etable ca­pac­ity” for be­com­ing thought­lessly seden­tary. This is as bril­liant and lifeaf­firm­ing as lit­er­a­ture gets. KN

Text, 416pp, $32.99

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