What is FLIGHTS but an assortment of sorts– a foray into the gap, the void between literary genres? Sudip Bhattacharya attempts to unfurl the myriad folds that make Olga Tokarczuk’s book a uniquely delightful read.
Flights first gives you the impression of a cheaply printed travelogue. The covers are thin and brittle and the book is very oddly shaped, rather… tall. After finishing the book, I quite consider this initial impression you get, when you pick it up at the bookstore, to be a defining feature for what you will find within the pages.
Is Flights a travelogue? Is it an anecdotal tour through the world? Is it fiction? Or is it (and I know a few of you will shudder at the prospect) philosophy? The brilliance of it all is that ‘Flights’ is all of these things. It moves seamlessly from nonfiction into snippets of fiction. One of the greatest symbols in American fiction is The Quilt; a quilt brings together fragments of discarded clothing to create something special and long-lasting. Olga Tokarczuk, despite her book and her travails suggesting otherwise, may just have been creating something by herself, for her pseudo-family.
The most entertaining parts of the book are her numerous anecdotal snippets. These range from lambasting hostels for not allowing older people to stay at subsidized rates, to poking fun at the shallow efforts of companies who provide tiny portions of toothpastes, creams, and soaps for ‘travel sizes’, specially for the nomads. There are hilarious sections about feeling sorry for the people who travel on trains, wasting entire days travelling simply because they are afraid of flying; an immensely strange passage describes her dream of finding instructions for building an ocean.
The less entertaining side of these anecdotal passages might be the inconsistency. I specifically did not care about the more heavy-handed philosophical discussions. They could range from ‘mildly interesting’, like discussions about how airports have moved closer to civilization, to some pretty heavy-handed ruminations on ‘travel psychology’. I will be fair, maybe these parts would appeal to other readers. I could say that the funny anecdotes will be universally liked, the small portraits of the numerous memorable characters she meets throughout her journey make for some very interesting literature, and the heavier philosophical ruminations lend the book some weight.
The other side of Flights is the collection of stories. They are not told coherently; you could find one part of the story at a very early stage of the book, and could find the next part fairly towards the end. If you can afford to remember and you are not overly curious about what happens to these characters, there is a very enjoyable side to coming back to characters you remember from the beginning of the book, almost like meeting old friends. There is an eerie story about a woman and her child who mysteriously disappear in a small Croatian island, leaving the husband to figure out where they went. There is a story about a woman who does not want to return home, does not want to face the mediocrity of her life.
The ruminations on travelling and in a sense ‘escaping’ mediocrity and humanity is then curiously alternated with ruminations on preservation. Preservation works in two ways throughout the book. On one hand, Olga is preserving different characters from becoming transient through her anecdotes. She deliberates on whether all experiences are transient; but like a god tries to preserve some very entertaining memories. On the other hand, is the preservation of the physical. A lot of the book is about taxidermy, preserving the flesh, understanding anatomy and furthering scientific agenda. At the first instance it could well appear gruesome, but soon you understand just how much the writer cares about this topic, and read through many of the interesting stories, it becomes clear how Flights is as much about preserving as it is about transiency. One of the best stories in this case would be the story of Philip Verheyen, who dissected and pored over the anatomy of his own amputated leg – later, its discovered that he even wrote letters to it. Speaking of letters, the narrative breaks down at one point quite abruptly through ‘letters’ from a certain Josefine Soliman. She writes letters to King Francis I, which gradually become more urgent, after the body of her father, Angelo Soliman is preserved and displayed in a shameful manner in the King’s personal collection. These letters show a different side to preservation – after going through some of the stories and musings on preservation it is jarring to see how inhuman it can also get.
My last word on Flights is that it is an immensely difficult book to review. You can pick it up at a bookstore, leaf through it. I hope you are lucky enough to find one of the better passages and you get hooked. My greatest disappointment with the book is a logistical one; in subject matter it is so varied, that I would have loved an index for all the characters, stories and scenes Miss Tokarczuk goes through. I cannot recommend this book wholeheartedly simply because it will speak to everyone differently, but I do recommend you leaf through it in your transient life, see if it is worth your time.