Book review: Olga Tokarczuk, Flights
Olga Tokarczuk, Flights (2007), translated Jennifer Croft, Fitzcarraldo editions (2017)
Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to write a ‘novel’, about ‘travel in the twenty-first century and human anatomy’.
Not an easy one and I think Olga Tokarczuk copped out (though, presumably, it was her idea).
Firstly, I’d ask, how much of this is about travel?; and how much is actually about the physical act of a person moving from A to B―an activity which can usually hardly be dignified with the term, ‘travel’? I’ve just driven back from Gloucester. it was journey, but I wouldn’t call it travel. ‘Travel’ is having a set of rich experiences on the way, which is hardly possible in a Ford Fiesta on the A417.
In this respect, a lot of the ‘travel’ Tokarczuk writes about is banal moving from A to B. The frantic husband looking for his wife; the same wife wandering (?―we never really find out) in the woods? Not exactly a cruise in the Aegean, or a hike up the Andes.
Further, the bits about human anatomy strike me as being mostly about the study of human anatomy, which is not at all the same thing.
Secondly, it is disappointing that the author makes only halfhearted attempts to weave the two themes together. One is driven to invent one’s own metaphors, about an underground train system, say, being like veins and arteries. Otherwise, you just have a man journeying to meet the widow of an anatomist, for example. The travel is strictly functional: it is the meeting (and the anatomy) which interests Ms Tokarcuk.
The book contains around eight stories, which take up half its pages. The stories are mostly about people―mostly women―who, more or less arbitrarily, step off the path they must have thought life had dictated for them, into the―what?―unknown.
However, in 403 pages there are over a hundred sections; many are much shorter than the stories―many under a page and one only 17 words (‘pretentious, moi?’). And I say ‘around eight stories’ because, it is not clear (to me) what is a story and what isn’t. These short section are, shall we say, tangential. Their relevance to the matter in hand is opaque. One is left thinking they had been left ‘wadded up and dusty in a drawer of bras and knickers’ (page 333) and the author thought they would add a sort of confected mystery to the book.
I completely get that the whole point is that the book isn’t intended to hang together. One is intended to relish the scenery―meditate on it, perhaps―as it goes by, moment by moment. However, while on a journey there is a logic to why this church is here, and that tree there; the author makes no attempt, through her choice of sections, or the way they are written, to justify why this story and not another one, why this character and not some other. Why this sequence and not a different one.
This is one of those books. You either like it or don’t like it. I can’t say, love it or hate it, because it carefully avoids anything so dramatic that such extreme emotions might be aroused.
It can be annoying, and certainly self-indulgent; pretentious even. As when the narrator asserts that she (?) has remained loyal to only two travel books: one an obscure, and itself pretentious, eighteenth century tract. And the other, Moby Dick [sic]. Puh-lease (76-78).
I didn’t appreciate the frankly ignorant foray into science with which the author is inadequately familiar: ‘Am I subject to that much-lauded [sic] law of quantum physics which states that a particle may exist in two places at once?’ No, you aren’t. Quantum mechanics applies strictly to a micro environment of subatomic particles, not to human beings in their totality (58).
For all that the writing reads well, and it does, it is too dispassionate for me (a consequence, perhaps, of the author, apparently formerly psychiatrist, having to put up with one too many patients’ traumas) and that dispassion too often becomes blandness or even banality. No Chekhov, she.
‘Satellite images flash through his mind―they say you can make out the writing on a matchbox with them. Is that possible?’ Yes, it is. Even in 2007, this shouldn’t have been a revelation (56).
‘Airports have a soundtrack. A symphony of airplane engines… A requiem [why a requiem?] that opens with the potent introitus of takeoff…’. But take off is to do with the aeroplane [sic], not the airport. She should have stuck with ‘symphony’ and left it at that, if only to avoid the inevitable questions, ‘which bit of the flight is the Benedictus?’, ‘Which bit the Sanctus?’ (63)
‘These are individual episodes, isolated gestures, like a footprint on a soft carpet made endlessly and always in the same exact spot and then vanishes’. Apart from noting that that should be, ‘…and which then vanishes’, I am baffled by this. How can an isolated gesture be like lots of gestures (ie lots of footprints)? Why does the footprint then vanish? Someone, whether author, translator or editor, needed to intervene here (69).
Housekeeping. It’s disappointing that the book is translated into US English, but with inconsistencies, particularly of spelling. But, ‘I had gotten stuck in a big city’ (18) is ugly. ‘Draught’, not ‘draft’, please (69), ‘[pedestrian] crossing’ not ‘crosswalk’ (363). It is a European novel and a European language would have been appropriate.
A number of words are broken over two lines in the wrong place―for example, ep/idemics (22) , helicop/ter (44), ‘ca/thedral’ (67).
The book is afforded generous margins, so it’s a shame that the inner margins are unnecessarily narrow, as if the designer hadn’t realised you can’t open the book flat without breaking it. And the run of the mill paper is extraordinarily translucent. Even my modest pencil notes grin through.
There are some pictures. The cover is, well, banal.
The stories are not so well told as to be particularly interesting in their own right, though I am sure that readers who make it to the end will have their favourite; mine was the one about the professor on the cruise ship being looked after by his wife―seemingly inadequate men being looked after by their wives or other strong women being one of the main themes of the book. But they aren’t so poorly told as to make one simply give up.
The authorial voice dispensing aperçus on travel is better done by Alain de Botton in The art of travel (let’s give him a Booker prize!). The vague, whimsical stuff is done better by―one of many examples―Ali Smith in Autumn.
So: it isn’t a novel; the travel in it is of the twentieth century; and it’s not really about human anatomy. Ms Tokarczuk should sack her publicist. Is this really one of the six best fiction books translated into English and published in 2017? I rather hope not.
© 2019 Jeremy Marchant
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