I try to read a good amount of contemporary literature and most of it still seems to adhere to older conventions of form and content. Our lifestyles have evolved way too rapidly in the past few decades but I suppose our storytelling has not—it doesn’t quite reflect our interconnected reality accurately, as in it continues to be largely “local”. And because I am very interested in the whole world, fiction that is very parochial can be very suffocating and boring to me. Occasionally, I do come across authors who will wander confidently across space and time (like Kanishk Tharoor did in his excellent collection Swimmer Among the Stars)—but such projects tend to be rare.
After Tharoor, it was Polish novelist Olga Tokarczuk who possessed that great global disposition for me. I found her Flights (originally published in 2007) an absolute delight. The English translation—published by Fitzcarraldo Editions—won the Man Booker International Prize this year. Tokarczuk, who was born in 1962 in the town of Sulechów in western Poland, trained as a psychologist at the University of Warsaw and worked as a therapist before starting her literary career (she is greatly inspired by Carl Jung). She currently lives in a small village in south-western Poland, near the Czech border.
Flights—which is divided into 116 vignettes narrated by a nameless female traveller—is a brilliant depiction of 21st century life, in particular one of its most important aspects–the ease of movement. Sophisticated ruminations on matter, spirit, mind, even phenomena like Wikipedia, appear regularly next to pieces on the psychology of travel. Characters from history are included as well, like the Dutch anatomist Philip Verheyen and Polish composer Frédéric Chopin.
Airports are central to the tale, they are no longer those non-places that people will only pass through. They don’t just supplement cities from the outskirts but they have identities of their own. Airports are part of a republic—the truest and most accommodating union—where you will meet the world and all of its inhabitants, tanned or bronzed, fluorescently white.
Travel brings moments of melancholy and difficulty, and Tokarczuk acknowledges this (“I took odd jobs wherever I happened to be”) but the final note that she strikes is one that is passionately against a sedentary existence. “Real life takes place in movement”, she writes. Many of us relate settlement with civilisation but the author energetically contests that view, adding: “Fluidity, mobility, illusoriness – these are precisely the qualities that make us civilized. Barbarians don’t travel. They simply go to destinations or conduct raids.” The message of the book is simple and forceful: “Move. Get going. Blessed is he who leaves.”
Those flight attendants who will welcome you to the carpet-lined curves of the tunnel are embedded in the mind of the reader as agents of promise, pointing to the possibility of rebirths and fulfilled dreams. As the book ends, we are reminded—poetically and philosophically—that no matter what we may want to think, ultimately we remain creatures who possess not roots but feet.
Read four excerpts that I loved:
THE TRUE NATURE OF BEING
My weakness is for teratology and for freaks. I believe, unswervingly, agonizingly, that it is in freaks that Being breaks through to the surface and reveals its true nature. A sudden fluke disclosure. An embarrassing oops, the seam of one’s underwear from beneath a perfectly pleated skirt. The hideous metal skeleton that suddenly pops out from the velvet upholstery; the eruption of a spring from within a cushioned armchair that shamelessly debunks any illusion of softness.
Collected over the years, these freaks of nature, two-headed and no-headed, unborn, float lazily in formaldehyde solution…Evidently there was someone who recognized that these freaks of nature were owed immortality, and that only what is different will survive.
GOD IS AN ANIMAL
“But don’t let yourself be taken in by the diversity – it’s superficial,” she said. “It’s all smoke and mirror. In reality, everywhere is the same. In terms of animals. In terms of how we interact with animals.”
“The true God is an animal. He’s in animals, so close that we don’t notice. Every day God sacrifices himself for us, dying over and over, feeding us with his body, clothing us in his skin, allowing us to test our medicines on him so that we might live longer and better. Thus does he show his affection, bestow on us his friendship and love…You can find the proof in Ghent…Here, look at how the rulers of countries are making their way up towards him, emperors and kings, churches, parliaments, political parties, guilds; there are mothers and children, elderly folk and teenage girls…”
THE RIGHT TIME AND PLACE
Many people believe that there exists in the world’s coordinate system a perfect point where time and space reach an agreement. They may even be why these people travel, leaving their homes behind, hoping that even by moving around in a chaotic fashion they will increase their likelihood of happening upon this point. Landing at the right time in the right place – seizing the opportunity, grabbing the moment and not letting go – would mean the code to the safe had been cracked, the combination revealed, the truth exposed. No more being passed by, no more surfing coincidences, accidents and turns of fate. You don’t have to do anything – you just have to show up, sign in at that one single configuration of time and place. There you will find your great love, happiness, a winning lottery ticket or the revelation of the mystery everyone’s been killing themselves over in vain for all these years, or death. Sometimes in the morning one even has the impression that this moment is close by, that today might be the day it will arrive.
A KIND OF ACCORD
This is how she understands it: life on this planet gets developed by some powerful force contained in every atom of organic matter. It’s a force there is no physical evidence of, for the time being – you can’t catch it on even the most precise microscopic images, nor in photographs of the atomic spectrum. It’s a thing that consists in bursting open, thrusting forward, in constantly going beyond what it is. That is the engine that drives changes, a blind and powerful energy. To ascribe goals or intentions to it is to misunderstand.
Darwin read this energy as well a he could, but he still read it wrong. Competition shmompetition. The more experienced a biologist you become, the longer and harder you look at the complex structures and connections in the biosystem, the stronger your hunch that all animate things cooperate in this growth and bursting, supporting one another. Living organisms give themselves to one another, permit one another to make use of them. If rivalry exists, it is a localized phenomenon, an upsetting of balance. It is true that tree branches jostle one another out of the way to reach the light, their roots collide in the race to a water source, animals eat each other, but there is all this a kind of accord, it’s just an accord that men find frightening.
More Polish literature on this blog: The House with the Stained-Glass Window by Żanna Słoniowska.