Flights by Olga Tokarczuk
Tokarczuk is deservedly a superstar (think JK Rowling) in Poland, where this book sold 160,000 copies in hardback. She and her translator Jennifer Croft should in my view win this year’s Booker International Prize.
Olga Tokcarczuk has written eight novels plus short stories. She produces work of such variety that she isn’t an easy writer to categorise – she believes in experimentation and is constantly surprising her devoted public.
‘It would be dangerous to use the same form’ she says. ‘I like Kubrik films – every movie is done a different way, and this is also my way. I am very quickly bored so it is better to use another genre.’
She’s in her mid 50’s, savvy, intense, good-looking and very distinctive with her beaded dreadlocks. Dressed in black, she has remarkable poise and a full understanding of who she is and what she does. She radiates confidence and calm. Super bright and eloquent in English, she believes in the power of fiction – as surely do her hordes of readers and fans. I met her last year when Claire Armistead interviewed her at Hay; she is very well known in Europe. Flights was described by Jerzy Sosnowki as ‘one of the most important Polish books I have read in years’. Nobel Prize literature laureate Svetlana Alexievich speaks of her as a ‘magnificent writer’.
Bieguni (the original title of Flights) is the name of a 17th century Polish-Russian orthodox sect that believed that the believer should always be in motion. ‘If you stay in motion then the devil won’t grab you. The work of the devil is to make us static.’ This book describes a flight in many terms, one of them psychological – a plea against being forced to settle, ‘against being conscripted by the army, against IDs, against becoming a number. Once numbers are describing us, we are in the arms of the devil’. The original title also has the meaning of running or jogging in every Slavic language, says Tokarczuk; that also defined her book in in a certain way. She spoke of how she discussed the problem of translating this title with Jennifer Croft (whose translation of this novel has been widely praised) and says ‘I couldn’t find a solution. English is more rational.’
Flights was written a decade ago and first published in 2006. An unnamed narrator – a woman who’s bossy, disapproving and knowing - ranges through time and space, mapping the world, the body, humanity and even the stars. ‘No novel can be without a very strong narrator – she’s a traveller drawn to misshapes, like a panoptical narrator.’ The narrator is attracted to things that are broken or unfinished or grotesque, that deviate from the norm, and the novel is ordered according to her journey and various obsessions. It presents a series of voices, stories and fragments dealing with everything imaginable from sanitary towels to religious relics in Prague; from the anomie of cheap airline hotels to Apuleius the good-natured donkey, upset at the mere glimpse of the huge American tourists he is going to have to carry as they emerge from their coach.
In this book of countless narratives, old and modern, a Polish woman who emigrated to New Zealand returns to poison her terminally ill childhood sweetheart; a wife accompanies her much older husband who is lecturing on a cruise ship. Wandering bieguni also appear: a desperate woman meets a seemingly crazy woman in a Russian city and through her finds a way out of her life. Some stories are very dark: one woman is creating a catalogue of human cruelties. A major concern of Tokarczuk’s fiction is to reflect what is happening now. ‘In past life’ she says, ‘like agriculture everything was cyclical – a winter/summer society. In late 19th and 20th century there was linear construction at a time of industry, banking – you put your money somewhere and wait for it to grow.’ Now everything is in flux and flow. The novel is a plea for this fluidity, for openness to the world. ‘TV and internet changed our minds,’ she says. ‘Zipping channels you have such space for different information and source but our minds perceives and makes sense of it. We now perceive the world in small fragments.’ Strange and wonderful maps also appear in the book. Tokarczuk again: ‘In Amsterdam I found an old book of ‘curious maps’, very strange inventions of people, some funny and some crazy. My favourite one – a map of Europe with no countries shows prayers. Very moving. A map of prayer. ‘
The stories in Flight are numerous, seemingly random, both true and invented. Some connect; the style is light on its feet and in its skips and jumps reminded me a little of Walter Benjamin’s Arcades project. ‘If I was writing it today it would be different,’ Tokarczuk said. She looked at all kinds of travel writing: log books, travel diaries, reportage – and found them artificial. So the form she invented was designed to make the experience more realistic.
‘You can imagine yourself on the porch at night watching the stars – they are bright but chaos, so our mind projects sense and makes and creates a constellation. I think about a constellation novel. I propose you as reader a kind of something and you can put your own order into it.’
Tokarczuk writes with great intensity, vividness and control. When she describes the airport as a kind of city-state her prose has a very modern feel. With equal intensity and vividness she can turn to Filip Verheyen – discoverer of the Achilles tendon - dissecting his own severed and preserved leg on a warm November afternoon in 1689. This is a man who researches his own pain – something Flights also does for us. Many stories are funny. There’s the drunken ferry pilot who makes off to the open sea with a ferry load of people - they seem remarkably resigned. Then there’s Tokarczuk’s young friend guiding US tourists round North Africa and deciding to invent stuff; in telling the Americans weird stories she starts to write her own book.
Tokarczuk has thought a lot about what encyclopaedic knowledge does:
‘The first encyclopaedists were first French Polish Catholic priests who invented the idea of knowledge being available in an ideal world. Now we live in that world – and it doesn’t work because people live with chaos.’ In that sense, her book is a guide to everything we have and everything we have lost. We possess so much information and yet know nothing. ‘We know about the pyramids but not our own lover. We need special tools to be close to our own form’ – hence the examples of anatomy in the text. Guidebooks, she says, have ruined the world; they are dangerous and ‘it’s better to use your own eyes’. Even the describing of a place can change and destroy it, bringing in hordes of tourists. Tokarczuk is simultaneously inventing worlds and writing an epitaph for all that is disappearing in ours, particularly those people on the move who live from the kindness of strangers.
She describes her writing process as rational and psychological: ‘I feel a frame in my mind and each day I research what is needed. I know from the beginning what’s interesting – I collect the stories, and it comes easily.’ A psychologist by training, she is drawn to the old arts: ‘I like astrology – people are ashamed of it, but an old art and it makes a beautiful typography of the 12 characters and is such a clever idea. I used it in my detective story to irritate the reader.’ She describes herself as being ‘out of the real world’ – inhabiting an obsessional state of mind, one that the families of many writers will recognise. ‘For my friends, husband, family, I am a very boring person. Eight facts in one sentence. I have a special memory. Nabokov admits to bad memory – that is the kind of memory he has, don’t remember your childhood or your socks but you remember 18th century special books.’ I'm not sure that she is right: Speak, Memory is surely a virtuoso exercise in recall - but I know what she means.
Of her previous works she says Jacob’s Book was the most difficult: ‘historical and so concentrated I could only read about 18th century Jews and Poland, I did nothing else – just Messiah videos’. She had a tremendous success and also aroused controversy with her 2009 novel, Drive Your Plough over the Bones of the Dead, which was subsequently filmed. She wrote this as a detective story. ‘People are snooty about crime but in a detective story you can be like a child and make plastic forms and build sand castles.’ The main character, an old woman called Janina Duszejko, is eccentric in that she perceives other humans via astrology. She relates a series of deaths in a rural area near Kłodzko, Poland, explaining them as caused by wild animals wreaking vengeance on hunters. The novel poses questions about the responsibility of human beings towards nature and the dangers of having a personal mythology. This book became political: ‘the Environment Minister is a hunter and cutting down old forests has caused big tensions and become a political problem. And so the book became like a manifesto.’ The film is set in the small place where she lives close to the Czech border, ‘I can hear the Czech discotheque over the border.’ The characters include two dogs and her own children. She says the movie animals were rented in Europe were from Poland – white pigs, blackbirds, dogs and cats, and by accident ‘they looked exactly like my dogs, my neighbours were sure they were mine and that I’d done big business.’
Tokarczuk is constantly moving forward. She defines art as ‘the space of freedom in our lives where we can experiment – this is the task of art. “Everything it’s possible to think is real” I like this definition.’
Claire Armistead asked her what is coming next. With this writer it is never what you might expect: ‘I am writing science fiction stories. I felt completely empty. I couldn’t write an email to friends. I had used every word I had. Then, slowly, small short stories arrived, plots fell like rain one drop at a time. Then I found two or three subjects for what I call ‘bizarre stories’ – now it will be about the future. Not so far ahead, but to understand what’s going on now.’
Flights by Olga Tokarczuk, Fitzcarraldo Editions, translated by Jennifer Croft