Olga Tokarczuk Explores the Live Chain That Connects and Fetters Us in ‘Flights’

August 9, 2018 | 7 min read

In a section of Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk’s Man Booker International Prize-winning novel Flights, translated by Jennifer Croft, the wife and toddler of a man named Kunicki disappear while they are on vacation on a tiny island. After a long day spent searching for them, he watches a group of men fraternizing with each other in a café. As they become more and more open and warm with each other, the narrator tells us, “The body no longer belongs just to itself, but is instead part of a live chain, a section of a living circle.” And he is jealous that these men can be so open with each other. We find out that he is self-involved and reserved, cold even, with the people in his own life, even his wife and son. Kunicki lives essentially in what the book would term an island state, “a state of remaining within one’s own boundaries, undisturbed by any external influence; it resembles a kind of narcissism or even autism.” In this novel on the increasing mobility of 21st-century life, those who isolate themselves, who want to limit their movement and interactions with others, are only living half a life. Everybody is part of a worldwide network of beings, a worldwide live chain, dependent on people they will never meet for everyday necessities, whether they acknowledge it or not. This is a particularly prescient point to have made in 2007, when the book was first published in Poland, now that we have entered this age of growing isolationism and xenophobia. Tokarczuk hopes to remind readers that we all have more in common than not. In a section titled “Unus Mundus,” a “poet friend” of the narrator’s, who has become a tour guide in the Arab world in order to support herself, tells stories about the places she works in to her tourists to entertain them. Her lack of knowledge of Arabic culture doesn’t faze her, though: “‘Let’s not kid ourselves,’ she’d say. ‘It’s just one world.’”

Tokarczuk reads like a more cerebral W.G. Sebald in this work: Whereas what lingers of Sebald’s works are the emotions he conjures up, what lingers of Tokarczuk are her ideas. The mind/body problem, theodicy, the fate of the body after death: These subjects preoccupy several different characters throughout the novel, and their comments form a chorus of perspectives on these issues. This is one of what Tokarczuk calls her “constellation novels,” works made up of essays, short stories, and sketches that together form their own live chain of patterns and echoes that generate meaning more in the manner of a short story collection than a novel. Most of the novel is dominated by the nameless protagonist, a woman who, as she puts it, “clearly … did not inherit whatever gene it is that makes it so that when you linger in a place you start to put down roots.” A perpetual traveler, she riffs on the offbeat people she meets and the insights she attains on her journeys. It is her voice that we hear in the essays, which touch upon topics as varied as Wikipedia, airports, and plastic bags. The fragments also cover the lives of searchers and dreamers from around the world, however, and the lives and deaths of historical figures such as Philip Verheyen, the 17th-century anatomist, Frédéric Chopin, and Josefine Soliman, an 18th-century Austrian whose letters protesting the stuffing and exhibition of her African father’s corpse in a cabinet of curiosities form one of the most haunting and moving sections of this novel.

Although this novel encompasses a range of characters spread out through time and space, we see the same preoccupations, concerns, and even behavior over and over again. In an early section, Kunicki’s wife and son disappear for three days. Then in a later section, a Russian woman named Annushka abandons her mentally ill husband and invalid son for a short period of time. Both women, it is implied, are bowing under the weight of an oppressive home life. In a similar chain of coincidences, the protagonist describes herself in one section as a “homegrown detective, a private investigator of signs and coincidences,” and then a few sections later we read that Kunicki has also become obsessed with reading signs. “Everything means something, we just don’t know what,” he thinks as he desperately tries to solve the mystery of his wife’s disappearance. Everyone functions under the same impulses and asks the same questions; although the particulars of the lives of these characters change, the selves of these characters bleed into each other in a way that doesn’t just imply that we are all similar cross-culturally, but brings into question the notion of individuality we hold so dear in the West.

Olga Tokarczuk majored in psychology at Warsaw University and worked in the field for five years. She has been obsessed with Carl Jung since that time, whose concept of the collective unconscious likely contributes to her characters’ mirroring of each other. Even more interesting than that, though, is the possibility that they mirror not just each other but also the protagonist. In an early section of the work, the protagonist admits that she started a novel but was never able to finish it because “In my writing, life would turn into incomplete stories, dreamlike tales, would show up from afar in odd dislocated panoramas, or in cross sections—and so it would be almost impossible to reach any conclusions as to the whole.” Since this sounds so much like Flights, I think we are invited to imagine that this is the protagonist’s book, so that the whole novel functions as a metanarrative, an exploration of the ways that an individual and her preoccupations, experiences, and interests filter into her renditions of others’ lives.

This makes sense for an author who seems to put so much of herself into her work. Tokarczuk spent a few years living an itinerant lifestyle, just as her protagonist does. Her writing is strongly informed by her vegetarianism and her feminism, something that has often caused her to incite controversy in her fairly conservative country. One of the most memorable scenes in the novel is in fact a plea for animal rights. On one of her travels, our protagonist has dinner with a fellow traveler, a middle-aged woman with graying hair named Aleksandra, and when the protagonist asks about her reasons for traveling, she’s told that Aleksandra travels to create a compendium of crimes against animals, “from the dawn of the world to our time.” She tells the protagonist: “‘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.’” She then shows the protagonist what she considers the proof, a Jan van Eyck painting from the Ghent altarpiece called “Adoration of the Mystic Lamb,” in which Christ is depicted as a white lamb.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

The scene is bizarre but also incredibly moving because, as the best of literature so often does, it makes the familiar strange again. It takes the metaphorical language of Christianity and shows us how we might in fact be able to read it literally and, in the process, forces the reader to face up to difficult questions about the extraordinary privilege we enjoy as human beings and the religions that attempt to legitimate that position. Sitting in the Stockholm airport at the beginning of the scene, “the only one in the world with wood floors,” the protagonist tells Aleksandra that “it was a waste of the woods to use them for flooring in an airport.” Aleksandra calmly responds, “They say that you have to sacrifice some living being when you build an airport … To ward off catastrophe.” Very often the things we find the most enjoyable or pleasant exist only through the pain or death of others.

Tokarczuk’s 2009 novel Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead also tackles the question of animal rights, in this case in relation to hunting, which fomented controversy when the film version premiered at the Berlin Film Festival. Flights also investigates the other exploitative relationships people often form, the ways the living chain of humanity and of our planet becomes tarnished and damaging. While it does touch upon race relations, most notably in the story of Angelo Soliman and his daughter Josefine, Flights concerns itself most closely with the exploitation of women by men, with the ways that women’s work and sacrifices help men thrive, with the ways that interconnectedness becomes interdependence.

In a section on Frederik Ruysch, the anatomist whose work obsesses several other characters in the novel, she spends more time discussing the work his daughter Charlotta put into so many of his specimens than his own. Often, when Tokarczuk tells us the stories of successful men, she shifts the attention to the woman (or women) in the backdrop. This section gives us a detailed description of Charlotta’s rich inner life—her fascination, which the protagonist shares, with “what is flawed and imperfect,” her private business dealings with vendors of medical specimens she can embalm, her feelings after her father sells “his” collection, and her subsequent desire to disguise herself as a man and sail away on an East India Company ship, an impulse that seems to mirror that of Kunicki’s vanished wife and Annushka. The section on Chopin is also not really on Chopin but on his sister, Ludwika, who transported his heart back to Poland as per his wishes, and a later section on a brilliant classics professor is not on the professor so much as on his much-put-upon second wife, who believes that “Men needed women more than women needed men.”

While men’s exploitative behavior is depicted in an unflattering light (Ruysch’s face is described as displaying “self-confidence and mercantile cunning,” and the short stories that take men as their protagonists both show us the men undergoing excruciatingly humiliating situations and emerging from them completely clueless), it’s clear that we are meant to see the women’s behavior as exemplary. A female scientist in a section titled “Godzone” tells us that the life force of our planet is “a thing that consists in bursting open, thrusting forward, in constantly going beyond.” But it is not inherently competitive: “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.”

And indeed, in spite of the restrictions that society places on women throughout the centuries covered in this work, women manage to thrive, often because of the help of other women. The Chopin section focuses in part on Ludwika’s efforts to have Mozart’s “Requiem” performed during her brother’s funeral service, which nearly proves impossible because the Catholic Church doesn’t allow women to sing in its places of worship. Ludwika is devastated because she cannot conceive of the piece being performed without her favorite singer, the soprano Graziella Panini, who has permanently injured her leg in a carriage accident. Finally the Church relents, and Graziella is allowed to sing, but only behind a heavy curtain. The description of her performance is one of the most beautiful in the novel, a testament to the power of women’s work, a missive of defiance to anyone who would attempt to smother women’s voices: “Until finally [Ludwika] heard the pure voice of Graziella shooting up like fireworks, like the revelation of her crippled leg, of the naked truth. Graziella sang the best, that was clear, and her voice was only slightly muffled by the curtain; Ludwika imagined the little Italian girl straining, intent, head raised, the veins of her neck swollen—Ludwika had seen her in rehearsals—as she belted out the lyrics in that extraordinary voice of hers, crystal clear, diamond clear, in spite of the heavy curtain, in spite of her leg, to hell with the whole damn world.” Amen.

teaches, writes, and looks after her very energetic toddler in San Diego.

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