by Olga Tokarczuk, translated by Jennifer Croft.
Fitzcarraldo, 400 pp., £12.99, May 2017, 978 1 910695 43 2
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Olga Tokarczuk’s​ novel Flights could almost be an inventory of the ways narrative can serve a writer short of, and beyond, telling a story. The book’s prose is a lucid medium in which narrative crystals grow to an ideal size, independent structures not disturbing the balance of the whole. Thirty pages seems to be the maximum dimension for her purposes – only one story element goes beyond that length, and is split in two, with one instalment in each half of the book. This is an episode, rather reminiscent of Antonioni’s L’Avventura, in which a woman on holiday mysteriously disappears from an island (along with her three-year-old son). The island in Antonioni’s film was uninhabited, while here it is a tourist destination in Croatia, every part of it known and explored, so there is no rational possibility of misadventure, as the locals and the police keep assuring her husband, Kunicki. At the police station he is offered beer, ‘as though the officers hope to hide their helplessness beneath that white foam’.

There’s a hint of pre-existing tension within the couple, an insignificant falling-out. Kunicki examines his wife’s possessions, and failing to extract any information, documents them obsessively:

he starts taking pictures with her camera, each object on its own. He photographs slowly, solemnly, zooming in as much as possible, with flash. His only regret is that the little camera can’t take a picture of itself. It is also evidence, after all … he comes across a small bottle of rakia and drinks it down in a single gulp, with the camera in his hand still, and then he takes a picture of the empty bottle.

In the second instalment, Kunicki’s wife and son have impossibly turned up after their impossible disappearance. His wife sticks to her insultingly simple explanation, that they got lost, sat down in a grove, found a little stone house where they slept, ate grapes, went swimming a lot. But they were missing for three days – and she maintains they drank seawater.

Details, the weight of details: he used not to take them seriously. Now he’s sure that when he arranges them in a tightly made chain – cause plus effect – everything will be explained. He should sit quietly in his office, lay out a piece of paper, best if it’s large-format, the largest he can find … and plot it all out in points. After all, that’s the truth.

He starts following his wife, and tries to get a child psychologist to find out from the boy what happened, but of course it’s his own attitude that becomes the problem.

Aligned structurally with this narrative strand, occupying roughly the same place in the second half as the disappearance of Kunicki’s wife did in the first, is an account of a Moscow woman who one day steps out of her oppressive life, spent looking after a son born incurably ill, thanks to the ‘toxic mix’ of his parents’ genes. ‘Annushka can smell his sweat, recognising pain in it, a thing she’s learned to do: Petya smells different when he is in pain.’ On the day her life slips a notch and resumes in the same city but effectively in a different universe, she is free to wander: it’s the day of the week when her mother-in-law watches over Petya. She has errands to run, and her habit is to cross the city, ending up in a little neglected church where she can cry, after lighting three candles, one for her son, one for her husband and one for her mother-in-law in her non-iron housecoat. On the way she passes a woman who fascinates her, apparently mad, always in the same place near the Kievsky metro station, who screams what seem to be curses at passers-by.

The woman is terrifying, but her outfit suggests something stranger than derangement:

she’s wearing a plethora of things: trousers, and over them several skirts, but arranged so that each sticks out from below the next, in layers; and the same on top – multiple shirts, sheepskins, vests. And over everything a grey quilted drill coat, the height of refined simplicity, an echo of a distant eastern monastery or a labour camp. Combined, these layers makes some aesthetic sense, and Annushka even likes it; it strikes her that the colours have been carefully selected, though it isn’t clear if the selection is a human one or rather the haute couture of entropy – fading colours, fraying and falling apart.

This woman’s life seems to be appalling, yet she is firmly at the centre of it, and when Annushka finds herself unable to return home, even when she can see the lights of the apartment and knows she is anxiously expected, her legs refusing to take her there, it’s clear where she will go and whom she will seek out.

Tokarczuk handles psychology adroitly but it isn’t her overriding concern, or perhaps she’s coming at it from an unusual angle. The narrator’s academic study of psychology, undertaken ‘in a big, gloomy, communist city’ taught her mainly the limitations of the discipline. The whole endeavour of understanding and overriding the drive towards destructiveness is called into question by the history of the area where she studies, built on top of the ruins of the ghetto, three feet higher than the rest of the town, three feet of rubble left by genocide, and of the psychology department’s building, the headquarters of an SS unit during the war. Yet the problem with psychology isn’t the impossibility of escape but the freedom that must be ignored to satisfy its paradigms:

When we’d put rats in a maze, there was always one whose behaviour would contradict the theory, who couldn’t have cared less about our clever hypotheses. It would stand up on its little hind legs, absolutely indifferent to the reward at the end of our experimental route; disdaining the perks of Pavlovian conditioning, it would simply take one good look at us and then turn around, or turn to an unhurried exploration of the maze.

Flights might be written in the spirit of that refusenik lab rat, fleeing the constrictions of conventional fiction-writing, which isn’t explicitly compared to the building of imaginary mazes but certainly has something oppressive and subterranean about it.

You have to remain within yourself all the time, in solitary confinement. It’s a controlled psychosis, an obsessive paranoia manacled to work, completely lacking in the feather pens and bustles and Venetian masks we would normally associate with it, clothed instead in a butcher’s apron and rubber boots, eviscerating knife in hand. You can barely see from that writerly cellar the feet of passers-by, hear the rapping of their heels.

Much of the pleasure of reading Flights comes from the essay clusters embedded between sections of narrative, and there’s no shortage of first-person writing here, but little autobiography in conventional terms: ‘My abdominal aorta is normal. My bladder works. Haemoglobin 12.7. Leukocytes 4.5. Haematocrit 41.6. Platelets 228. Cholesterol 204. Creatinine 1.0. Bilirubin 4.2. And so on. My IQ – if you put any stock in that kind of thing – is 121; it’s passable.’ Admittedly there’s a sketch early in the book describing a childhood spent in a town by the Oder, with parents timidly rooted, city dwellers consciously experimenting with small-town life, father in a café passing the time until his wife was finished with her hairdresser’s appointment by reading the local paper, where the most interesting section was always the police reports, even if the crimes only involved gherkins and jam jars stolen from a cellar. Holidays were circumscribed adventures in a Skoda packed to the gills. ‘They’d set up in the designated areas, at campsites where they were always in the company of others just like them, having lively conversations with their neighbours surrounded by socks drying on tent cords.’

The Oder looked big to the narrator as a child, but it had its place in the hierarchy of rivers, ‘a kind of country viscountess at the court of the Amazon queen’. The first map in the book shows what seems at first glance to be an array of vegetables with long dangling roots – a stylised image, perhaps 19th-century, of rivers laid out side by side. There are a dozen maps in total, only occasionally converging with the winding argument of the book, more counterpoint than illustration. They’re drawn from a single source, The Agile Rabbit Book of Historical and Curious Maps, for reasons of formal neatness or economy of effort.

Not every gene is inherited, and the narrator has a very different constitution from her parents: ‘I don’t know how to germinate, I’m simply not in possession of that vegetable capacity. I can’t extract nutrition from the ground. I am the anti-Antaeus. My energy derives from movement – from the shuddering of buses, the rumble of planes, trains’ and ferries’ rocking.’ This might be one model of travel psychology, but Tokarczuk invents a more ambitious one, as expounded by an educational outreach team: ‘If we wish to catalogue humankind in a convincing way, we can do so only by placing people in some sort of motion, moving from one place towards another. The fact of the repeated emergence of so many unconvincing descriptions of the stable, fixed person appears to call into question the existence of a self, understood non-relationally.’ Family history, biology, social context – all these things, important in traditional approaches, dwindle almost to nothing in travel psychology. Desire remains the motivator, but ‘Where to?’ replaces the question of ‘What?’ Causality yields to a looser arrangement, going by the name of constellationality. The book itself is constellational, but tightly organised despite the impression of miscellaneousness.

The outreach team delivers its presentations in an improvised lecture area at an airport, to a shifting audience of travellers waiting for their flights. This is almost the opposite of a captive audience, and even the narrator doesn’t concentrate on the exposition for long: ‘I stopped listening. The lecture was too long. They ought to dispense this education in smaller doses.’ She doesn’t linger, though she comes across the lectures again later in the book, and the ideas of this invented discipline filter into the book at various points.

Though Flights is constructed on a large scale, its affinities are more with such miniaturists as Borges and the Calvino of Invisible Cities than with practitioners of the epic in fiction. There’s plenty of movement in Flights, but it’s the movement of an orrery rather than a train. Tokarczuk is attracted to neatness and compression – ‘to someone from nowhere, every movement turns into a return, since nothing exerts such a draw as emptiness’ – but she stays reliably on the right side of aphoristic patness. Airline food, for instance, leaves no trace in the awareness of the person who has eaten it. It’s as though it contains no substance, only shape and smell, yet this turns out not be a criticism since it corresponds to the description of ‘the food they’d serve in paradise. Food for hungry souls.’

Cioran is another likely influence on the more unpredictable texture of the prose between the larger units, places where the rate of change is quicker. At one point the narrator describes meeting a traveller who would open a book of Cioran’s at random every morning when away from home to find his guiding principle for the day, using his work as a latter-day sortes Vergilianae. The sortes Cioranenses might be a more daunting version of bibliomancy, but the man is confident that replacing the Bibles in hotel rooms with volumes of Cioran would produce a higher standard of guidance. The sample passages quoted, from Exodus and Cioran’s Anathemas and Admirations, bear him out, but of course the comparison is a put-up job.

The cascades of concise interstitial passages are often satisfying philosophical riffs on time and space, bodies and language, repetition and uniqueness. The morning flight from Irkutsk to Moscow, for instance, takes off at eight and lands at the same time, on the same day. The whole flight coincides with dawn: ‘Passengers remain in this one moment, a great, peaceful Now, vast as Siberia itself.’ Time elapses inside the plane but doesn’t leak out of it. Elsewhere there’s a sly passage of pity for native speakers of English:

How lost they must feel in the world, where all instructions, all the lyrics of all the stupidest possible songs, all the menus, all the excruciating pamphlets and brochures – even the buttons in the lift! – are in their private language. They may be understood by anyone at any moment, whenever they open their mouths … I heard there are plans in the works to get them some little language of their own, one of those dead ones no one else is using anyway, just so for once they can have something just for themselves.

These sections move unpredictably even when they seem to announce a paradox with limited scope for development, such as the idea of cities serving airports rather than the other way round. Soon airports have been rhetorically promoted to the status of republics, members of a World Airport Union, not yet represented at the UN, it’s true, but it can only be a matter of time, its constitution spelled out on every ticket, the only criterion of citizenship the possession of a boarding pass. There’s even something approximating to a national anthem, ‘a symphony of airplane engines, a couple of simple sounds that extend into a space devoid of rhythm, an Orthodox twin-engine choir, gloomy minor, infrared, infrablack, largo, based on a single chord that bores even itself. A requiem that opens with the potent introitus of take-off and closes with an amen descending into landing.’

Jennifer Croft​ ’s translation is exceptionally adventurous, as that passage shows, even if there are occasional awkwardnesses of word order and clashes of register. (To say, of Peter the First’s interest in anatomical specimens, that the tsar ‘got chills’ looking at preserved human foetuses would be a terrible piece of phrasing even if it didn’t tap into a deep pop-cultural memory of John Travolta’s voice.) Ilinca Zarifopol-Johnston, one of Cioran’s translators, described her job in the introduction to On the Heights of Despair as equivalent to the experience of Jacob, who wrestled with an angel all night long – ‘the translator struggles silently with the author until he blesses him or lets him go.’ On any number of pages Croft’s translation earns that blessing: she can give the impression, not of passing on meanings long after the event, but of being present at the moment when language reached out to thought.

It’s not just the tsar. Flights takes an obsessive interest in the preservation of bodies after death. The freedom or compulsion to roam comes up against the finitude of the body, and the posthumous processing, whether mummifying, pickling or plastination, that is both a denial of mortality and a capitulation to it. These two themes aren’t like subject and countersubject, since it would be hard to assign either of them primacy. They’re more like the poles of a single magnet, disposing material around them in symmetrical charged curves.

One section of extended narrative recounts the life of the 17th-century Flemish surgeon and anatomist Filip Verheyen, a farmer’s son whose precocity seemed to mark him out for a career in the Church. As the narrator (supposedly a student of Verheyen’s) puts it, nicely balancing pious period reflection and modern irony, ‘I am certain that we cannot recognise the fate grooved on the other side of life for us by the divine Engravers. They must appear to us only once they’ve taken a form intelligible to mankind, in black and white. God writes with his left hand and in mirror writing.’ In his second year of theological study in Leiden, Verheyen grazed his calf on a nail. The infection that developed required an amputation, but before the operation was performed he begged his surgeon to preserve the leg, wanting his body to be buried entire when the time came. When Verheyen came round from his alcoholised amnesia he was shown his leg ‘drowned in brandy, just as mothers are shown newborns after giving birth’. The leg is given something approaching a point of view, ‘living its own life as a specimen, submerged in alcohol, in a perpetual haze, dreaming its own dreams of running, of wet morning grass, of warm sand on the beach’. After that, Verheyen decided to study medicine.

His fictional equivalent in the 21st century might be Tokarczuk’s Dr Blau, medically trained but working as a conservator in a museum, and fierce in his belief that the human body has a right to last. ‘It is an outrage that it’s permitted to disintegrate underground, or given to the mercy of flames, burned like rubbish. If it were up to Blau, he would make the world differently – the soul could be mortal, what do we need it for, anyway, but the body would be immortal.’ The plastination of tissue, Blau’s speciality, was invented by Gunther von Hagens but its patron saint might be Christ himself, who ‘shows us his red fleshy heart’, even if von Hagens’s exhibition of preserved body parts is described as ‘satanic’. Dr Blau follows it around like a groupie.

Blau visits Taina Mole, the widow of a distinguished colleague, hoping to be given access to her husband’s research. The widow says that she’s looking for someone who might take on the professor’s lab. She’s eager to show off his masterworks, one of which is an inconceivably lifelike cat.

Gently, as though touching the most fragile piece of origami, with just his fingertips he pried apart the abdominal walls of the animal and got into the peritoneum, which also let itself be opened, as though the cat were a book made out of precious, exotic material for which there is no name yet … The fine ribs gave way under the pressure of his fingers. He was actually expecting to see a beating heart, so perfect was the illusion. Instead there was a click, something lit up red, and out came a screeching melody, which Dr Blau later identified as the famous hit by the band Queen, ‘I Want To Live Forever’.

He recoils in alarm, worried he might have harmed the animal somehow.

As it turns out, the widow’s motives aren’t as pure as all that. She’s expecting payment in kind for the professional benefits she can offer. When she shows Blau the professor’s lab, she puts her hand on his back and stands close to him, her breasts touching his shirt. For Blau, whose imaginary friend as a child was inspired by the Glasmensch in Dresden’s Hygiene Museum, ‘a six-foot-five golem without skin made of perfect imitation glass organs’, whose birthday presents as a boy were coloured anatomical plates, who was brought a life-sized human skeleton by the Easter bunny, it’s all too much. He recoils more sharply even than he did when the cat’s sound chip sprung its ambush.

In fact his ideal sexual transaction would involve a dismantling similar to the one offered by the cat. He regrets that there’s no tab ‘or hidden latch that would cautiously permit itself to be released by a nail, inviting him inside, no protrusion, no secret little lever, no button that, when pressed, lets out a burst of something, a small spring that would react and reveal to his eyes the desired complex insides’. Taina is older than he is, and though vigorous and even sporty is unflatteringly described, from sun-damaged skin to bunions, with flabbiness in her musculus orbicularis oculi– but her real failure is to be alive. The title of the Queen song, written for the film Highlander, is actually ‘Who Wants to Live Forever’, and though the mistake is conceivably the author’s or even the translator’s, let’s assume it’s Dr Blau’s and that the book is choosing to give Brian May the last word in the scene: ‘There’s no chance for us/It’s all decided for us/This world has only one sweet moment set aside for us.’ For Taina and Dr Blau this is not that moment.

There’s one​ noticeable omission from the book’s scheme, even if it’s cheeky to suggest such a thing. As the book spells out, the preservation of bodies has been an obsession of many cultures, but Jeremy Bentham’s Auto-Icon is a special case, undertaken not to glorify the dead person but to show that there should be no respect due to death. By having himself publicly dissected Bentham also hoped to break the taboo against leaving one’s body to science.

The Auto-Icon is Bentham’s skeleton, dressed in his clothes, including underpants and two pairs of socks. His executor, Southwood Smith, tried to preserve the head and succeeded in giving it an impressive hardness, but no expression was left on the face, so he commissioned a wax model as a substitute. The Auto-Icon hasn’t led an entirely sedentary life since 1832: it’s been to Germany twice, and was even driven to Hampton Court in the 1980s for conservation, sitting in a red Morris Marina. Bentham suggested that Auto-Icons of ancestors would make suitable adornments for gentlemen’s country estates, covered in gutta-percha for weatherproofing and perhaps alternating with trees in an avenue to demonstrate pedigree for the benefit of visitors. Leaving your body to Gunther von Hagens for plastination comes a poor second to Bentham’s permanent spoof of the yearning for immortality.

In Flights Tokarczuk reconstructs letters Josefine Soliman sent to the emperor of Austria, Francis I, asking for the return of her father’s body for burial. Angelo Soliman (born Mmadi Make) was a slave when he arrived in Europe from west Africa, and served in various princely courts, but also became a freemason (a member of True Harmony, the lodge to which Mozart belonged) and a friend of Joseph II’s. This remarkable process of assimilation was reversed at the moment of his death, when he became merely an African specimen, skinned, stuffed and exhibited in a cabinet of curiosities, part of the Imperial Natural History Collection. His daughter’s letters requesting the return of the body, mastering every philosophical, personal and religious argument, had no effect, and it stayed where it was until it was destroyed by a fire in 1848. Angelo Soliman’s experience makes him an extreme outlier in Olga Tokarczuk’s elegant orrery. Excluding Bentham’s Auto-Icon from the mechanism deprives it of that last refinement of calibration.

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Vol. 40 No. 3 · 8 February 2018

Having just caught up with Adam Mars-Jones on Olga Tokarczuk, I’m surprised that he describes her use of Queen’s ‘Who Wants to Live For Ever’ as ‘giving Brian May the last word’ (LRB, 5 October 2017). It’s true that May wrote the song, but the lines Mars-Jones instances were sung by Freddie Mercury. Would Mars-Jones have described a quotation from ‘My Way’ as ‘giving Paul Anka the last word’?

Jemima Smithson

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