Adam Mars-Jones

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:

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