As someone who loves travel, I must say that Olga Tokarczuk’s book, Flights, opened up new vistas in my mind about how to think about it. Part travelogue, part meditation on time and journeys, part historical storytelling, it is hard to even call it a novel, which is what it is.
The genre-defying Flights is a tour de force, taking us to undiscovered territories across space and time. To start with, it is a book about travel, but not in the way we usually tend to think about it. For Olga journeys are not just physical or geographical, crossing borders and space, they are also journeys of the mind and the soul.
First, the form and structure of the book is so different from most novels. Written almost in a journal-like form (sans date and place, though), it reads like the random – but insightful – thoughts of someone whose mind is well-furnished with reading, music, psychology, travel, history, and an understanding of the human body and psyche that is reflective.
Interspersed between these fragments where she shares her thoughts with us on various subjects, are the stories of travel across centuries, including one from our times, where a man on holiday in Croatia with his wife and son, loses them, and his search is yet another kind of journey. A journey that he can’t let go of, even after they have returned to him. Running across all of these tales is a human story, of our quest to know more, to discover new horizons and how throughout our lives, we are all restless, wandering souls.
Imagine the entire book as a journey then, with the four main stories as lengthy stopovers and the insightful fragments as airport or café jottings. Indeed, in one such fragment she does talk about her love for, and ability, to write just about anywhere she can find a piece of paper and pen to hand.
Here is Olga on the psychology of islands:
“According to travel psychology, the island represents our earliest, most primal state prior to socialization, when the ego has already individualized enough to attain a certain level of self-awareness, but without yet having entered into complete, fulfilling relationships with its surroundings. The island state is a state of remaining within one’s own boundaries, undisturbed by any external influence, it resembles a kind of narcissism or even autism.”
In the travel tales from centuries gone by, her stories of the Dutch anatomist, Philip Verheyen, and his letter to his amputated leg as remembered and written by his student, Willem Van Horssen and that of Chopin’s body making its way to Warsaw for his funeral are journeys back in time as well as in historical context and culture. While reading this, I was reminded of how I felt when visiting Chopin’s grave at Père Lachaise in Paris; such journeys are visits to the past and about paying one’s respect to the greats.
Olga Tokarczuk makes her way from the conventional travel journey to those of the anatomy of body and soul, and back into the real world so seamlessly that as a reader you feel you are really travelling with her thoughts, for such leaps can hardly be made on a page otherwise. Her description (or rather Verheyen’s student’s description) of Verheyen’s rather innocuous injury (a rusty nail tearing his trousers) in the days before tetanus was invented and the subsequent amputation of his leg as well as his detailed drawings of it make for marvelous reading.
Similarly, her treatment of the subject of Chopin’s body making its journey to Warsaw for the funeral according to Chopin’s wishes is moving without being sentimental. And as an example of what I said earlier about making certain journeys to pay respect to the great, and travelling in both body and soul, here is Olga immediately after the passage on Chopin:
“Each of my pilgrimages aim at some other pilgrim. This time, in the details draped over oak shelves crowned with a beautifully calligraphed inscription:
Eminet In Minimus
Maximus Ille Deus
(Prominent among the least of the greatest God)”
On the subject of conventional travel, Olga has plenty to say on airports, museums and meeting people from different parts of the world. Her view of airports, and one that I couldn’t agree more with, is that airports these days are so vast, they are microcosms of the more familiar, stationary world.
“In what possible ways could airports be considered inferior to actual cities nowadays? They hold conference centres, interesting art exhibits, festivals, and product launches. They have gardens and promenades… they are more than travel hubs: this is a special category of city-state, with a stable location, but citizens in flux. They are airport-republics, members of a World Airport Union, and while they aren’t represented at the UN, it is only a matter of time.”
It is with such powers of observation and wit that Olga Tokarczuk manages to engage us in her world view, all wrapped up in a fictional tale, of course.
On travelling in the mobile internet age, she believes she is a citizen of a Network state:
“Occupied with moving around in various directions, I have lost my orientation in the political matters of my country in recent times. Conversations have gone on. Negotiations, conferences, sessions, summits. Great maps have roamed over tables, where flags have marked conquered positions, vectors drawn to show the directions of the next conquests…
My phone, equally polite, immediately informs me as soon as I get off a plane which province of the network state I now find myself in. It also gives necessary information, offers help should anything happen to me.”
She recounts an incident on a long-distance journey, where she found herself out of range of any mobile network and says it reminded her of an old engraving of a wanderer who had reached the edge of the world and so threw out his travel bundle. She says:
“That traveler from the engraving can consider himself a fortunate man: he sees the stars and planets, spread out evenly across the firmament of the sky. And he hears the music of the spheres.
We’ve been denied that gift at the end of our travels. Beyond the Network there is silence.”
In every sense then, travel is about being everywhere and nowhere. In a passage so titled at the start of Flights, Olga tell us of a woman she meets at a train station while waiting to catch a bus to the airport, who shares her theory of time. She believes that sedentary people, including farmers prefer the pleasures of circular time, in which every object and event must return to its own beginning, while nomads and merchants thought up the concept of linear time, because it was more practical and allowed them to measure their progress toward a goal or destination.
I couldn’t help but smile when I read this and shared it on social media as well, because I had written something very similar in my blog post on time and how we should think about it. I do believe that time moves in both circular and linear fashion and that it all depends on our time horizon and how we view it.
I knew immediately that I would enjoy this book. And what a flight it’s been.
On a slightly different but related note, I was delighted to find a clip of an old archival recording of Amelia Earhart on The Future of Women in Flying on archive.org. Have a listen and imagine the future of travel.