Early in Olga Tokarczuk’s novel “Flights” (translated by Jennifer Croft), the unnamed narrator notes the primary difference between her and her unadventurous parents: “Clearly, I did not inherit whatever gene it is that makes it so that when you linger in a place you start to put down roots. . . My energy derives from movement — from the shuddering of buses, the rumble of planes, trains’ and ferries’ rocking.” She is rarely in the same city from one page to the next, and about one-third of the book is set in airports, train stations and other midpoints. Her restlessness is mirrored in the meandering structure of this ambitious and complex novel, which won the 2018 Man Booker International Prize for translated fiction.
Though some of the narrator’s observations on traveling are interesting, the real pleasures of “Flights” are in the digressions and stories she intersperses throughout. Operating with enviable confidence, Tokarczuk shifts effortlessly within the space of four pages from an art museum to a commentary on the social invisibility of middle-aged women to a banal conversation with fellow travelers to the story of a man named Kunicki whose wife and child have disappeared.
Kunicki’s search for his missing family is the first prolonged narrative, though it is interrupted midway and only briefly revisited 300 pages later. In the interim, there are 10 other seemingly disconnected stories, including a 17th-century anatomist dissecting his own severed limb; a woman summoned by mysterious emails to Poland to visit her first love; and a woman who walks out on her family to live as an itinerant beggar. Readers looking for these stories to reach a neat conclusion may be disappointed. Tokarczuk shows little interest in tying off loose ends or explaining how the pieces fit together. The disconnectedness is part of the point; they are fragments of people’s lives, a patchwork of personal experience, secondhand observation and imagination. Each story appears, draws our attention and then fades as the narrator finds her way to a new hotel, a new airport.
The narrator is especially focused on how naming things changes their nature. Many of the tales, especially one about a disenchanted sailor reclaiming his old name, explore the notion that by discovering what things are called, we change what they are and can be. She writes: “Description is akin to overuse — it destroys; the colors wear off, the corners lose their definition, and in the end what’s been described begins to fade, to disappear. . . . The truth is terrible: Describing is destroying.”
Several of the stories, which occasionally border on the grotesque, focus on issues of preservation and decay. The narrator continually returns to the imagery of body parts preserved in jars, discussing, among other things, the differences between various embalming fluids. One story is told in the form of letters from a daughter begging the czar to return her father’s body, which he has on display in a museum. Another details a doctor’s desire to one day own a massive catalogue of women’s nude bodies.
The two threads — storytelling and preservation — create a tension between ephemerality and permanence. Each of the narrator’s travels, as well as our own, is short-lived and soon forgotten. Each life she describes passes quickly and with little fanfare. But all along the way, people desperately try to find a way to preserve what they’ve seen. While travelers have photographs and diaries, scientists and amateur taxidermists have anatomy textbooks and jars full of brandy and lost limbs. They’re all in pursuit, the novel seems to be arguing, of the same goals.
Despite her belief that naming things leads to their destruction, she makes a passionate argument in favor of continuing to tell stories anyway:
“Do not leave any unexplained, unnarrated situations, any closed doors; kick them down with a curse, even the ones that lead to embarrassing and shameful hallways you would prefer to forget. Don’t be ashamed of any fall, of any sin. The narrated sin will be forgiven. The narrated life, saved.”
The only choice she has is to be a conduit for all the stories she finds. With each new tale she tells, she is helping to redefine the world she knows.
I’m afraid that all this talk of existential philosophy may give a false sense of the novel’s tone. It moves briskly, buoyed by a sense of humor that is sometimes dark but often joyful. The narrator wrestles with weighty issues, but not because she is tortured or suffering. Hers is an optimistic, generous voice that just happens to have some morbid fascinations. The act of discovery enlivens her, as well as the text. With each new setting, I found myself not frustrated by the false starts and dead ends, but rather excited to see where she would take me next. It’s one of the novel’s great strengths that Tokarczuk can keep you turning the pages even as you’re not entirely sure what she’s getting at, or how it all fits together.
Tom McAllister is the author of three books, including the 2018 novel “How to Be Safe.”
By Olga Tokarczuk
Riverhead. 416 pp. $26.