Olga Tokarczuk, Flights, translated by Jennifer Croft (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2017)
by Marta Dziurosz
I first saw Fitzcarraldo’s English edition of Flights (and its strikingly blue, minimalistic cover) a good while before its official publication date, at an author event during the 2017 London Book Fair. Olga Tokarczuk, Wednesday’s LBF Author of the Day, was in conversation with Deborah Levy at the London Review Bookshop. Their discussion was everything the audience could have hoped for – poetic, generous, with a lateral approach. Tokarczuk said that for Flights, she had to come up with a new format: she called it a “constellation novel”, and it fitted her intentions for the book perfectly, like – she said – a tailored dress. For my part, I was looking forward to reacquainting myself anew with this book I first read years ago, in Polish, when I still lived in Poland: would it read differently, translated into English, now that I have translated myself into a life in England too? How would this patchwork narrative – that subtly questions, page by page, the idea of borders and belonging – work out of its “original” context?
Flights is composed of pieces that vary in length from a paragraph to a couple dozen pages. There is no index, nor a table of contents: to find the parts you liked you need to have taken notes, dog-eared the corners of the pages, deployed Post-Its – or patiently leaf through the book. The genres vary. There are fictional short stories with a beginning, middle and end, some of the characters recurring – such as Kunicki, the man whose wife and child inexplicably go missing during an island holiday; there are lyrical accounts of historical figures, such as the Dutch anatomist Philip Verheyen, or the hard-to-credit story of Chopin’s heart and how it made its way from France to Poland; excerpts from lectures on “travel psychology” (a phrase used almost mockingly by Tokarczuk, a trained psychologist), supposedly witnessed by the narrator at an anonymous airport; first-person shards of travelogue. If you look at Flights from above, it is not an arrow or a clear route from A to B, but a landscape, a map, featuring various places of interest, not connected in any obvious way, but still adding up to a whole. This map is also literal – the text is interrupted from time to time with graphic elements, reproductions of illustrations from old-fashioned atlases with their outmoded, elaborate fonts and obsolete place names.
Textured, sensitive writing about history – and especially about the facets of history that are generally forgotten – is something Tokarczuk excels at. Her most recent book, the monumental The Books of Jacob, soon to be published in English by Fitzcarraldo Editions and also translated by Jennifer Croft, is a rich, polyphonic fictionalised story of a 17th-century self-appointed Messiah, Jacob Frank. He is almost dangerously charismatic, but it is his community that is the focus of the book: Tokarczuk gives all of them voices, perspectives, bodies. Two of her other novels available in English are House of Day, House of Night (Granta), and Primeval and Other Times (Twisted Spoon Press), both translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones; both span lengthy periods of time and feature sizeable casts of characters; both have something of the parable in them, compassionately examining the fundamental issues of being human.
Speaking of translation and multiple translators: at the World Congress of Translators of Polish Literature, which took place in June 2017 in Kraków, Tokarczuk was in conversation with a group of her translators about various versions of The Books of Jacob. It occurred to me that an event like this, but focused on Flights, would be an opportunity to think about the borders any given text crosses, to explore whether the subject matter has any bearing on the process of writing the text in another language. Does a book whose ethos is all about transit and encounter travel differently than one firmly rooted in its soil, redolent of its local terroir? As a reader, I found it thrilling to read those tales of movement newly told in another language; it felt like an affirmation of the idea Flights has at its heart – that beautiful and deeply human things can come from being in/from more than one place.
During her conversation with Levy, Tokarczuk suggested that Flights has an autobiographical element and was written at a restless time in her own life. The image of a woman in transit, unattached and free to define herself outside of the relationships she might have with others, is still rare, powerful, and important – it appears not only in the travelogue passages, but also, in various guises, in most of the fictional narratives. Tokarczuk’s narrator recounts how, in childhood, she realised that “change will always be a nobler thing than permanence”. The women in Flights engage with journeys, freedom and disappearance at different levels. Some only dream about them, like Verheyen’s hard-working, competent sister Charlotta, who walks down to the harbour one day and wonders about binding her breasts to cast away femininity and land aboard a ship. Others succumb to the temptation of going off-grid, like the Russian Annushka – ground down by her existence, she approaches a homeless woman and, under her taciturn guidance, dips into life down and out, riding trains all day. It is the homeless woman, Galina, who provides the most striking passage in the book, a manifesto, a credo of the religion of movement. “Your body in motion is holy”, says Galina, and her three-page monologue on the transcendent virtues of transience will resonate deeply with everyone who rails against any limitations to the movement of people, who has ever dreamed of upping sticks and starting from scratch, who considers borders and systems limiting and dangerous.
The interest in the body evident in the book is also related to migration; Tokarczuk told Levy that when you travel, your body is the only constant presence, the one thing that remains recognizable. Issues of agency over one’s body (whether present or withheld), of what animates matter and of what becomes of the body after death, of how we can dissect, analyse and preserve the contents of our skins recur in Flights. There seems to be comfort in the deep awareness of the workings of the body – one character muses during a 17th-century performance in which a woman’s body is dissected for an expert audience:
Ruysch with these round gestures was transforming the human essence into a body and before our eyes undressing it of mystery; breaking it down into prime factors as though taking apart a complicated clock. The threat of death slipped away. There’s nothing to be afraid of.
Thematically, Flights is filled with echoes and reminiscences; in our journeys we sometimes return to places we have seen before, search out similar experiences, and there are a few interests here that recur with a subtle rhythm. Tokarczuk explores plastination, anatomical atlases as maps to the human body, Wunderkammern filled with preserved human specimens. Whether travelling outwards into the world or inwards within the body, there is a desire on these pages to continue exploring and create a record of this exploration. The book overflows with signs and writing; there are “stains like calligraphy” on a hairdresser’s apron, diagrams, maps, even tattoos that can be read like text. The idea of borders is also explored, naturally – their porousness, the ease with which they can be crossed – as are itineraries: the humiliation of having to follow them, the subversion and agency of being able to deviate.
In one of the passages, Tokarczuk mentions the idea of synchronicity:
evidence of the world making sense. Evidence that throughout this beautiful chaos threads of meaning spread in every direction […].
As I was reading Flights, synchronicities kept happening – it felt like I was looking at the search history of my own laptop: there was a scattering of ideas that have caught my attention too, historical figures I have done some reading on. There is mention of Rachel Ruysch, an eminent but slightly forgotten Dutch painter, one of the few women in the boys’ club that was the Dutch Golden Age. Moby Dick, one of my favourite books, is important for one of the characters. There is mention of spice trade, one of the subjects of my MA thesis. As a Pole living in the UK, I am also not entirely sure what it says about me that I found myself responding to this sentence:
I was far from pleased to be encountering compatriots in foreign lands. I pretended not to understand the sounds of my own language.
Flights felt like a map of a sensitivity that I share. I found myself wondering whether there is a sort of blueprint to the minds and tastes of us citizens of nowhere, us who think in more than one language? Us who like to snoop gently on others, glance into others’ living rooms in passing, witness fleeting images of lives that, in their brevity, feel more stable than ours? I have never read a better description of that urge than Tokarczuk’s, writing about Dutch houses without curtains: “After dusk the windows turn into little stages on which actors act out their evenings. Sequences of images bathed in yellow, warm light that are the individual acts of the same production entitled ‘Life’. Dutch painting. Moving lives.”
The translator, Jennifer Croft, gives Flights a warm and competent voice, slightly different in various passages – ranging from the kind curiosity and openness of the narrator’s conversations with her travel-mates to the urgency of Kunicki’s mounting paranoia – but consistent. The approach Croft finds for the historical passages is subtle: they are not overwhelmed by historicity, but gently elevated above the present-day narratives by something like dignity. She wraps Tokarczuk’s thoughts in neat packages of calm, measured English, for example, about “the subtle pleasure of experiencing internal motion”; or passages like this:
I do think that the Peloponnese has the most beautiful shape. It’s the shape of a great maternal hand, not a human one, that is dipping into the water to check if the temperature is right for a bath.
A few repetitions tripped me up; there is also, perhaps, a conversation to be had about whether “vagina” and “vulva” are the same thing (they are not – but how much does it matter here?). Those are, however, minor quibbles; as in all of Tokarczuk’s writing, there is empathy in Croft’s translation, and wisdom too.
If one wanted to create a constellation around Flights, of books it could have a fruitful conversation with, it might include Lauren Elkin’s Flâneuse, about women wandering around cities, and Rebecca Solnit’s works on getting lost, landscapes and migration, as well as W. G. Sebald’s oneiric, genre-fluid travel writing. Each journey is a rebirth in Flights, each motion a way of life – or perhaps life itself.
One of the images that returns, again and again, is the hand with an extended index finger – a hand that propels, indicates, demonstrates, a hand in dialogue. The book is a personal, yet universal mythology of travel, a cabinet of curiosities, a box with old tickets, museum leaflets, shells and beer mats collected on the way. What we can touch, whether it is our own body, someone else’s hand in spontaneous dance, a crumbled leaf from a particularly important tree – all those things are imbued with meaning that, in Tokarczuk’s telling, becomes greater than the grand narratives history and politics have been feeding us.
 Croft’s essay on translating the novel can be found on the PEN America website here.