Olga Tokarczuk is both a commercial and critical success in her native Poland, but Flights is only her third novel to be translated into English and one of her first to be published in the United States. This is especially timely since Tokarzuk and translator Jennifer Croft were awarded the 2018 Man Booker International Prize for the best work of translated fiction. Flights is not a conventional novel; it’s not even a collection of linked short stories but rather a playful amalgam of meditations, fragments and tales that, taken together, explore what it means to be a traveler.
Flights combines intriguing stories of historical figures with more prosaic accounts of overbooked flights and missed trains. The unnamed peripatetic narrator proves a good-natured companion whose childhood vacations extended no further than locales easily reached by the family car. But if her timid parents traveled mostly for the pleasure of returning home, her passion is to stay moving. Drawn to maps and atlases, she is also a frequent visitor to museums that feature taxidermist and anatomical exhibits. Her stories pull the reader deep into the minds and bodies of her subjects, such as a 17th-century Flemish anatomist who discovered the Achilles tendon, and the posthumous return of Chopin’s heart from Paris to his beloved Warsaw home. The contemporary tale of an environmental biologist called to assist a terminally ill friend bears the weight of how much a single journey can change us.
The Polish title of the novel is Bieguni, the name of a mystical Slavic sect that rejected settled lives and lived as nomads. Like a modern member of this little-known and possibly fictitious group, Flights’ narrator is most comfortable when she is crossing borders, dining in airports and striking up conversations with strangers in hotels. In Tokarczuk’s world, travel should always return you a little different from how you set out. Though the connections between sections can sometimes feel choppy, Tokarczuk’s voice comes through as both confident and confiding, often knowing and surprisingly witty, in Croft’s elegant translation.
Though the novel might not be for everyone, Flights is a fine introduction to a major European author, especially for those interested in contemporary or experimental fiction.