Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Flights by Olga Tokarczuk

A tangled web of wanderlust and mummification
Flights, a work of fiction by 2018 Nobel laureate Olga Tokarczuk, was originally published in 2007 under the Polish title of Bieguni. Though not a novel in the traditional sense of the word, Flights is considered a novel because there really isn’t any better word to describe its narrative structure. The text consists of 116 very loosely connected scenes, some of which are long enough to qualify as short stories, but most only a page or two in length. These vignettes are a mix of contemporary and historical fiction, as well as mini-essays, all jumbled in sequence both chronologically and thematically.

Much of the text is written from the first-person perspective of an unnamed female narrator who is a writer by trade. In the book’s early scenes, this narrator explains that she is essentially addicted to travel and leads a nomadic globe-trotting existence. Of all the wonders the world has to offer, the sites that most fascinate her are “cabinets of curiosities,” particularly those museums and exhibitions focusing on human anatomy. Like an Atlas Obscura junkie, this traveler seeks out the curious and the bizarre, relishing every opportunity to gaze at centuries-old organs preserved in jars, relics of freakish physiological anomalies, or dissected human bodies encapsulated and displayed in blocks of transparent lucite. Thus, two thematic streams flow throughout the book: travel and anatomy. While Tokarczuk expounds very eloquently and creatively on both subjects, the connection between the two is very tenuous at best, which often makes Flights feel like you are reading two separate novels that have been shuffled together like mismatched decks of cards.

In the travel portions of the book, the narrator sometimes relates the stories of fellow travelers she has met in her journeys. Other passages describe the sights, sounds, and customs of exotic locales. Usually the destinations are not named, which can be frustratingly disorienting. Often the shorter entries read like nonfiction asides, consisting of the kind of observational humor on airports, hotels, and the inconveniences of travel that Jerry Seinfeld might come up with if he had a PhD in psychology. Of the fictional vignettes, the most interesting “short story” concerns a Polish family vacationing on a Croatian island. The husband pulls their car over to the side of a road to let his wife and child go to the bathroom in the bushes. They never return to the car and appear to have vanished, leaving him to figure out what happened. Unfortunately, like many of the scenes in Flights, the fragmentary nature of the storytelling proves unsatisfyingly inconclusive.

The anatomical vignettes, in general, are more compelling. In addition to the narrator’s visits to modern medical museums, Tokarczuk delves back in time as far as the 17th century to deliver fictional sketches on pioneering anatomists of the past, including some characters based on actual historical personages. The common thread uniting these flashbacks is the scientists’ search for an ideal method of preserving, embalming, or “plasticizing” human tissue—­a problem ultimately solved by the polymers used in today’s anatomical exhibitions.

Judging from the English translation by Jennifer Croft, Tokarczuk is a very talented writer with an expert command of language, keen insight into human nature, and an acute and amusing wit. Each scene in Flights is captivating in its own way, but the work as a whole feels disjointed, indeterminate, and meandering. Though its parts may be greater than its whole, Flights is nonetheless worth a read, and it makes one want to delve further into Tokarczuk’s body of work.

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