Flights – the journey of a novel in fragments

The distinctness of every culture can be found hidden, like a Morse code, within the nooks and creases of language. Which is why, translation is not an easy job, especially literature where the central idea encompasses a wide range of moods and emotions. It would be wrong to say that Olga Tokarczuk is the exclusive author of this book; this referring to the translated work and not the original in polish. That is why for the rest of the review, I shall refer to the author as Tokarczuk-Croft or T-C, giving equal status to the multi-talented American author, critic and translator, Jennifer Croft.

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.

The story is disjointed and yet glued together by one common theme – travel. We know very little of the author – not even her name – except for the fact that she is a dedicated traveller, unlike her parents who only experimented with travelling. Through vignettes, little pieces that use imagery and descriptive language to describe a single moment, character(s), place, time, or event, T-C explores the world of travelling like no other.

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 sanitary pads and guidebooks to tales of transported hearts across volatile borders, Flights quickly becomes a literary concoction of fact and fiction. The stories of a German doctor obsessed with human anatomy, a polish man searching for his lost family on an island, and that of a sister’s letters to the emperor of Austria desperately pleading him to take down the dead body of her brother from exhibition, are interspersed between airports, hotel lobbies, train journeys, and lectures on travel psychology. Flights is a constant trip between 17th and 20th century, but one that takes off at a leisurely pace, travels slowly, and lands softly. The prose never gets caught in sudden air pockets and after the journey ends, the reader is jet-lagged from the beautiful lines that makes the experience philosophical and profound.

I wasn’t in a hurry. I never have to be in any particular place at any particular time. Let time watch me, not me it.

When I first picked up the book, I had little idea what I was heading into. I had no clue that T-C would take me on a journey across centuries, countries, and emotions. It took me almost two months to finish this book. Not because it was a tough read but because I had to pause at every line and enjoy the profoundness and depth that T-C laced them with. In all honesty, I wanted to abandon the book after 100 odd pages, but such is the power of the language in Flights that I had to return like an addict going through cold turkey.