Meandering journey mix of memoir, fantasy and fiction

Olga Tokarczuk's Flights is an entertaining journey weaving through past centuries and eras.

Olga Tokarczuk
Text Publishing

Olga Tokarczuk is an eminent Polish writer and essayist, and winner of many notable literary prizes. Of leftist convictions, she is politically active, and her background in psychology and philosophy also informs her work. Carl Jung is one of her main influences.

Flights is a lengthy and meandering journey weaving through past centuries and eras. Published in 2008, it has recently appeared in English translation. Mixing memoir, fantasy, realist fiction and the Gothic among others, the plots soar and dip as stories are wedged deliberately uncomfortably side by side.

While the title may suggest the author’s contemporary travels to varied destinations, she opts instead for a much more obscure focus. Rather, the flights come across as rapid flights of fancy into centuries long gone, profiling individuals of dubious appearance and occupation.

Tokarczuk has a claim on certain knowledge areas of more primitive European science and medicine, frequently conjuring up stories of gruesome dissections and  specimen preservation. Tales outline cabinets of curiosities, "the things that exist in the shadows of consciousness". She is drawn to the dolphin’s kidney in formaldehyde, the salamander with two tails. Visiting the hall of brains, showcasing "errors and blunders of creation" she is fascinated by the "cream-coloured anemones on solution" and the foetuses, or "miniature munchkins".

A jump into the life of a 17th century Flemish adventurer also focuses on anatomy. An amputated leg stands in a jar by his headboard, "skin browned by the brandy, but the toenails remained raised, pearlescent". Another piece looks at people themselves stuffed, and displayed, specifically a black man, the historic figure Angelo Soliman, once a loyal servant in a European court, grotesquely put through taxidermy in the ultimate tasteless objectification of the Other.

There is a broad skip into recent times too, and here Tokarczuk’s interest in inner workings and related areas comes into play as she ponders aspects of travel psychology, such as the airport as its own coherent space, or as a spinal cord, with nerve roots radiating out. Citizens here are all designated as travellers, or individual nerve impulses of the world, and as such watch each other passing by on moving walkways as if from inside preservation jars or trapped in belljars.

In other present-day stories there is the mapping of a city on foot and by daily traversing; escalators and the cavernous mouths of underground trains; and the shrouded figures of ghoulish and troubled nighttime wanderers who shout out gibberish curses. A woman and small child inexplicably tumble off the radar on a small island in Croatia. Night is its own place of flight. As Tokarczuk says, night returns to the world its natural, original appearance, devoid of sugar-coating.

In the opening story, featuring the author, she states that when first writing books she became for a while a "sort of gargantuan ear that listened to murmurs and echoes and whispers, far-off voices that filtered through the walls". Alongside this mammoth ear, it seems, is a quizzical and highly observant eye, seeking and recording, turning perversely towards the deformed, the monstrous and abject.

This all makes for excellent and entertaining reading as we are privy to scenes and descriptions from which our first reaction would be to turn away.

- Jessie Neilson is a University of Otago library assistant.

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