Flights by Olga Tokarczuk review – the ways of wanderers

A wandering Slavic sect survives on the kindness of strangers in this playful Polish novel

One of the fragment-chapters in this fascinating novel of fragments tells of a man who takes a particular book on his travels: a short one by the French-Romanian philosopher Emil Cioran. He feels that European hotels would do well to replace the obligatory Bible with Cioran, because the Bible was no use “for the purposes of predicting the future”. The narrator, an alterego of the author and a good-humoured, reliable voice that carries the novel through its many digressions, meets him on one of her countless peregrinations, and he quotes Cioran at her: “It was clear to me that our mission was to graze the dust in search of a mystery stripped of anything serious.”

This reflects the existential preoccupations of Flights, whose central recurring tropes are physical movement, the mortal body and the meaning of home. It is a novel of intuitions as much as ideas, a cacophony of voices and stories seemingly unconnected across time and space, which meander between the profound and the facetious, the mysterious and the ordinary, and whose true register remains one of glorious ambiguity. Olga Tokarczuk is a household name in Poland and one of Europe’s major humanist writers, working here in the continental tradition of the “thinking” or essayistic novel. Flights has echoes of WG Sebald, Milan Kundera, Danilo Kiš and Dubravka Ugrešić, but Tokarczuk inhabits a rebellious, playful register very much her own.

I first read this novel in Bulgarian translation, where the original Polish title has been kept: Bieguni. This word is the key to the book, much more so than the freely rendered “Flights”, a bland but understandable choice in the mostly smooth translation of Jennifer Croft. The bieguni, or wanderers, are an obscure and possibly fictional Slavic sect who have rejected settled life for an existence of constant movement, in the tradition of the travelling yogi, wandering dervishes or itinerant Buddhist monks who survive on the kindness of strangers.

The beiguni have rejected settled life for an existence of constant movement, in the tradition of itinerant Buddhist monks.
The beiguni have rejected settled life for an existence of constant movement, in the tradition of itinerant Buddhist monks. Photograph: Rungroj Yongrit/EPA

These wanderers appear halfway through Flights; a desperate woman in an unnamed Russian city meets a seemingly crazy “shrouded” woman who shows her that there is an escape from her life of suffering. The shrouded woman is one of the bieguni, and her monologue provides the most powerful voice of the novel: “Whoever pauses will be petrified, whoever stops, pinned like an insect, his heart pierced by a wooden needle, his hands and feet drilled through and pinned into the threshold and the ceiling … This is why tyrants of all stripes, infernal servants, have such deep-seated hatred for the nomads – this is why they persecute the Gypsies and the Jews, and why they force all free people to settle, assigning the addresses that serve as our sentences.”

For the narrator, the obsession with wilful deracination begins in childhood, with her conformist parents and their “timid tourism” every year in the family Škoda. Though away from home, they remained “within the same metaphysical orbit of home … They left in order to return.” The narrator, by contrast, develops an attraction to all things broken, unfinished, incomplete and peripheral: “anything that deviates from the norm, that is … overgrown or incomplete, monstrous and disgusting”.

And so she takes us to creepy basement museums where anatomical pathologies are preserved in jars; to lurid exhibitions of skinned human bodies; and deep into the minds and bodies of characters real and imagined, sometimes both. Historical figures are unexpectedly imagined: the dead Chopin’s heart, accompanied on its long journey back to Poland by his loving sister Ludwika; an imagined biography of the Flemish surgeon who identified the achilles tendon. The more obviously fictional stories are no less fascinating – the poignant, thrillerish marital drama of Kunicki and his family, who disappear on a Croatian island; the portrait of the Mengele-like Dr Blau, who loves to cut up bodies; the disturbing one-sided correspondence to the Austrian emperor by a woman whose father, a former courtier and diplomat, was posthumously stuffed on account of being black. After a chance encounter with a woman whose mission is to write “a book of infamy” by cataloguing all of humanity’s cruelties, the narrator thinks of Atatürk, whose social reforms included exiling Istanbul’s wild dogs to barren islands, condemning them to devour each other.

Flights is a passionate and enchantingly discursive plea for meaningful connectedness, for the acceptance of “fluidity, mobility, illusoriness”. After all, Tokarczuk reminds us, “Barbarians don’t travel. They simply go to destinations or conduct raids.” Hotels on the continent would do well to have a copy of Flights on the bedside table. I can think of no better travel companion in these turbulent, fanatical times.

Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe by Kapka Kassabova is published by Granta. Flights is published by Fitzcarraldo. To order a copy for £11.04 (RRP £12.99) go to bookshop.theguardian.com.

Contributor

Kapka Kassabova

The GuardianTramp

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