Olga Tokarczuk: Flights

July 21, 2021

     I’ve lately grown rather despondent about fiction written in English; either I’m not encountering interesting and innovative approaches, or there aren’t any. Certainly I find much greater satisfaction reading novels from other lands, normally in translation. For my money, Olga Tokarczuk really deserved the Nobel Prize: she pushes the boundaries. I returned to Drive Your Plow Over The Bones of the Dead recently, and now I’ve just re-read Flights. That’s not a particularly good translation of the title: the Polish title translates as ‘Extremes’ in the sense of from one place to another, and the French version is called ‘The Pilgrims’, which doesn’t really cut it either…

It’s about travel, movement, in place and time, physical and metaphysical. Much of it is fiction, some is digression, philosophical musing, if you like, some is historical documentary, almost. There’s no clear line from A-Z through the book; the sections are feel associative, if anything. And it’s fascinating! There is a goodly selection of weird maps illustrating or intervening in the text; I was astonished to discover that they came from the Agile Rabbit collection, which I was given for Christmas many years ago.

It takes a bit of work, because you don’t really have a framework or pattern to slot the book into from the start. It’s a challenge; it’s not compulsive, page-turning reading, yet you’re intrigued enough to carry on, rewarded enough mentally, curious enough to find out where Olga’s going with this one. Do the digressions intervene in the story-telling, or is it the other way around? The psychology of the fictional characters is certainly compelling enough. Where does the stuff about the plastination of bodies, or about dissection in the eighteenth century, actually fit in?

So, Olga Tokarczuk has done something new with the ‘novel’ here, with fiction, with writing itself, I think. This is welcome in the days when, as I said earlier, the form feels rather tired and hackneyed, and there seems to be a dearth of writers prepared to experiment and take risks with doing new things. Here is originality of form and approach, here is mental stimulus and thought-provoking, here is good writing, well-translated, demanding the reader’s input, engagement and attention.

Flights is enigmatic, indefinable, marvellous… definitely worth your eyeball time!

3 Responses to “Olga Tokarczuk: Flights”

  1. I just read Hour of the Star by Clarice Lispector and was intrigued by the the experimental form though I’m not sure I could write a review on it but I like the way you deal with that here. I gifted this book to a family member but I haven’t read it myself, still watching this author from the sidelines. I agree regarding translations and works from outside the Anglo mainstream.

    Liked by 1 person

    • litgaz Says:

      I suppose I ought to declare a vested interest, in a sense, as I’m half Polish. And her Nobel acceptance speech had some very interesting things to say about writing and fiction, as I recall. I’m awaiting the English translation of the novel that actually got her the nomination – The Books of Jacob finally comes out in four weeks’ time!


      • I look forward to what you will make of it. Vested interests can be interesting, one’s own and where those of others lead us. I have a vested interest too, be wise I learned who my father was at the age of 28 I’ve become interested in Northern Irish literature, partly because of what the culture is (from multiple perspectives including the recent Diary of a Naturalist written by a 15 year old boy) and to understand why he left at 17 permanently. It’s a fascinating journey to read as alongside understanding a person, even our own family.


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