Letting bieguni be bygones: Olga Tokarczuk’s ‘Flights’

Margaux Emmanuel 31 May 2021
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Let us go then, you and I,

When the evening is spread out against the sky

Like a patient etherized upon a table…


After reading 2019 Nobel Prize in Literature winner Olga Tokarzcuck’s Flights (translated to English by Jennifer Croft), these words from T.S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufock came to mind, especially the ingenious imagery of the ‘patient etherized upon a table’; there is a bodily and psychological self-awareness that permeates the various characters of Flights, exploring the anatomy of mankind. As a reader, we are there, subjugated, investigated, probed at.  In this novel (even if the denomination ‘novel’ might not be the most adequate when considering Flights) this ‘exploration of human anatomy’ takes on both a very literal and figurative sense. Flights is daring in its experimental, nonlinear nature. It proposes fragments, then delves into indulgent descriptions, then retracts, jumps hundreds of years backwards, then forwards, journeys on to another continent. Mobility and motion are key concepts of this Montaignesque narrative, whether that be from an anatomical perspective, or when describing human migration – in the end, what pushes us to move? A few sentences that poignantly capture this sense are for instance:

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 is in motion is able to last for all eternity.

These phrases encapsulate the way in which Tokarczuk maintains poetic energy, creating an impressionistic experience whilst also engendering a forward momentum that very much reflects this conception of ‘a thing motion’, refusing to settle for permanence. And yet there is an indescribable binding element to the narrative that makes this novel ‘in motion’ work. The original Polish title, ‘Bieguni’, mirrors this idea, since the term ‘bieguni’ refers to a Slavic sect of wanderers. Tokarczuk has noted that one of her inspirations for the novel was the routes taken by airplanes, as we can tell by the title: Flights is about interconnection, perhaps rooting from the body itself. 

This novel is one of the most unique page-turners I have ever encountered, surpassing the mere storytelling function of the novel to scramble it, and invest it with new realms of possibility. Tokarczuck’s book is a journey, travelling from the seventeenth-century Dutch anatomist Philip Verheyen, to the eighteenth-century tale of an North African slave turned Austrian courtier, or then the nineteenth century following Chopin’s heart and, in the present, the story of a mother and child having disappeared, all of this  interspersed with aphorisms and memoir-like chapters. This polyphonic narrative, with fiction and truth intertwined, oscillates between the encyclopedic and the lightness of rich poetic evocations. It defies generic expectations in an electrifying manner; it is playful, perhaps even rebellious. 

Flights, as I mentioned beforehand, takes a specific interest in the body, especially in its relation to epistemology and experience. Tokarczuck writes on the body with a poetic and heightened emotionality:

‘I don’t want to do a confession,’ he says. ‘Just hold my face in your hands.’ He smiles weakly; there is mischief in his smile.

…She feels his thin skin and delicate bones, the cavities of his eyeballs. She feels him pulsing underneath her fingers trembling, as though tense. The skull, that delicate latticework structure of bone, perfectly solid and strong yet fragile at the same time.

There is a liveliness in the language, the ‘delicate’ latticework being Flights as a whole itself, every fleeting moment becoming another. Since Tokarczuk is a Polish author, I also enjoyed the chapters where, in a memoir-like manner, the author-narrator reflects on foreign language and Polishness – these are even perhaps the strongest moments of the novel. There is a chapter about a single Polish word, and one that particularly marked me about the English language:

There are countries out there where people speak English. But not like us—we have our own languages hidden in our carry-on luggage, in our cosmetics bags, only ever using English when we travel, and then only in foreign countries, to foreign people. It’s hard to imagine, but English is their real language! Oftentimes their only language. They don’t have anything to fall back on or to turn to in moments of doubt.

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 elevator!—are in their private language.

This thought of the English language as solely functional, almost transactional, but also as a ‘private language’ for some, struck me: when you have to keep your ‘language hidden’, your relation to a world dominated by another language is certainly restructured. In the end, Flights becomes a reflection on the immanent logic of the structure of human experience: like these interwoven narratives, our own experiences remain whole and idiosyncratic, and yet also spun into a web, only a flight away from the lives of others.