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Saturday 4 August 2018

Review: Olga Tokarczuk Flights

On my desktop there are a dozen or more folders containing a few hundred Word docs which claim to be essays, chapters, very short stories, vignettes, aphorisms, plus many more beginnings of the same. I am convinced that since they all come from the same brain, I ought to be able to arrange enough of them into something which could Pass as a book. So far, I have yet to convince anyone else, and not really myself either. 

Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights has given me fresh hope. Her publishers, in original Polish and in this English translation, have allowed her over four hundred pages of compilation – and they are very readable! Her bits and pieces can be loosely arranged under such superordinate themes as “Travel” (which is converted to the title Flights) and “Anatomy” and surely if I scratch around a bit I can find a couple of overarching themes for my stuff.

Most of us nowadays read books (if at all) in fits and starts, and Tokarczuk’s book slots perfectly into our habits. I have been reading a couple of sections – they all have helpful bold titles  to break up the text – and then turn, as one does, to check emails and the latest bits and pieces which make up the day’s World  News. It has all felt quite seamless. This is the way to go, I tell myself. Now you have a weapon to beat sceptical editors!

Tokarczuk has the cast of mind of an obsessive and like many obsesssives, she has accumulated a splendid cabinet of curious bits of knowledge: “The shortest war in history was waged between Zanzibar and England in 1896, lasting thirty-eight minutes” (page 109). I loved that and immediately linked to the kind of Wittgensteinian puzzle which undergraduates used to ponder and may still ponder (though “pondering” does not really capture youthful minds): Can you be in love with someone for thirty eight minutes? Does the concept of being in love apply only in relation to something which is a bit more enduring than that?

You could say that Tokarczuk’s book is “about death” because it contains a lot of dead bodies, usually preserved in formaldehyde or subject to other techniques of preservation (the author catalogues many with considerable panache). You could say it is “about love and loss” because there are the beginnings of quite long short stories spliced into the book which fit that category. You could say that it is “about being a middle-aged woman” because there are wistful  asides on the subject, scattered through the pages, just as there are scattered remarks about Catholicism and Communism. You could say that it is about human lives without a centre, the fact disguised by endless displacements (flights).

Or you could just say that it makes an interesting and unusual book to pick up and put down, on a train journey, on a flight. But the absence of a main plot line is probably disconcerting for the reader who likes to be drawn along for two or three hours without a break and wants to feel that they are travelling to some destination.

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