Column Editor: Donna Jacobs (Retired, Medical University of South Carolina, Charleston, SC 29425)
The noun “flight” has eleven different definitions according to thefreedictionary.com. There can be flights of stairs to climb, flights of beer for tasting, flights leaving the airport, long flights, flights of imagination, or flights of time. This variety of definition was most important to embrace when reading and absorbing the novel Flights (Bieguni) by Olga Tokarczuk published in 2018. Olga Tokarczuk was awarded the 2018 Nobel Prize in Literature “for a narrative imagination that with encyclopedic passion represents the crossing of boundaries as a form of life.” A description that could easily been a line out of a review written for this work of fiction. Tokarczuk was born on 29 January 1962 in Sulechów, Poland. She is described on the front flap of the dust jacket “as one of Europe’s most inventive authors.” No argument here.
Sidebar: The 2018 award was announced in 2019 due to the scandal that exposed serious flaws in the appointed-for-life committee. After a year of regrouping, new members, new rules and a new hope for transparency the committee announced both the 2018 and the 2019 Nobel Literature Laureates. The Washington Post wrote a perspective on this that is worth the read: https://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/books/the-swedish-academy-took-a-year-off-to-fix-the-nobel-prize-in-literature-its-still-broken/2019/10/10/23f1b6da-eb7d-11e9-9306-47cb0324fd44_story.html. The next Booklover will explore a work by Peter Handke, the 2019 prizewinner.
Flights starts with “Here I Am.” Could be a chapter title, although the book does not designate chapters in a traditional sense. The book does begin and it does end — in between is quite a ride. “The World In Your Head” follows quickly on page two and sets a tone:
“Standing there on the embankment, staring into the current, I realized that — in spite of all the risks involved — a thing in motion will always be better than a thing at rest; that change will always be a nobler thing than permanence; that that which is static will degenerate and decay, turn to ash, while that which is in motion is able to last for all eternity. From then on, the river was like a needle inserted into my formerly safe and stable surroundings, the landscape composed of the park, the greenhouses with their vegetables that grew in sad little rows, and the sidewalk with its concrete slabs where we would go to play hopscotch. This needle went all the way through, marking a vertical third dimension; so pierced, the landscape of my childhood world turned out to be nothing more than a toy made of rubber from which all the air was escaping, with a hiss.”
Next “Your Head in the World”: “I studied psychology in a big gloomy communist city.” …“Here we were taught that the world could be described, and even explained, by means of simple answers to intelligent questions.” The narrator describes more of this schooling that never materialized into a trade, deciding instead to develop the craft of putting pen to paper: “Anyone who has ever tried to write a novel knows what an arduous task it is, undoubtedly one of the worst ways of occupying oneself.” The subject matter chosen for this narrator’s book: travel.
From a few lines to several pages, the titled flights continue. I begin to relate this to flights at a tasting, where each sip of each sample takes the taste buds to a different place, or are these words flights of imagination? With titles like: “Everywhere and Nowhere.” “Wikipedia.” “The Psychology of An Island.” “Unus Mundus.” “Josefine Soliman’s First Letter to Francis I, Emperor of Austria.” “The Tongue is the Strongest Muscle.” “The Achilles Tendon.” “Chopin’s Heart.” “Letters to the Amputated Leg.” “The Polymer Preservation Process, Step By Step.” — the reader is constantly engaged and at the same time left contemplating — where to next?
Tokarczuk maintains a few threads throughout the 403 pages. One is a fascination with dissection, anatomy and the process of plastination of the human form. “Now there was a whole person — or better said, a corpse — halved lengthwise, revealing the fascinating structure of the internal organs. The kidney, in particular, distinguished itself with its remarkable allure, like a great, lovely bean, blessed grain of the goddess of the underworld.” Tokarczuk takes this to another level in “Cross Section As Learning Method” and gives the reader a unique, almost metaphorical, look at the metholodogy of infusing a corpse with a material which allows it to be manipulated, dissected, and inspected in a way a layman normally never sees the human body: “Learning by layers; each layer is only vaguely reminiscent of the next or of the previous; usually it’s a variation, a modified version, each contributes to the order of the whole, though you wouldn’t know it looking at each one on its own, cut off from the whole. Each slice is a part of the whole, but it’s governed by its own rules. The three-dimensional order, reduced and imprisoned in a two-dimensional layer, seems abstract. You might even think that there was no whole, that there never had been.”
Second Sidebar: While visiting St. Augustine I happened upon “Bodies Human-The Exhibition of Real Bodies.” After a literary immersion with Tokarczuk’s fascination, I had the opportunity to have a visual immersion. Still processing what I saw. This exhibit and Tokarczuk’s Flights is not for everyone, but it does leave one with a desire to explore more.
I hope you are not motion sick after all these flights as I leave you with one last excerpt from the piece entitled Flights: “Over the world at night hell rises. The first thing that happens is it disfigures space; it makes everything more cramped and more massive and unscalable. Details disappear and objects lose their features, becoming squat and indistinct; how strange that by day they may be spoken of as ‘beautiful’ or ‘useful’; now they look like shapeless bodies: hard to guess what they’d be for. Everything is hypothetical in hell… Then you realize: night gives the world back its natural, original appearance, without sugar-coating it; day is a flight of fancy, light a slight exception, an oversight, a disruption of the order. The world in fact is dark, almost black. Motionless and cold.”