Book Review Article
Olga Tokarczuk, Flights, translated from the Polish by Jennifer Croft (NY: Riverhead Books, 2018, 403 pp.)
A TRAVELER SEEKING TERATOLOGY
“Every time the flight I’m on takes off. Or if I can hear a flight take off.”
From “Come As You Are,” in Harper’s “Readings,” April, 2019. From accounts of nonsexual orgasms documented in “Orgasm Range and Variability in Humans: A Content Analysis.” Study published in The International Journal of Sexual Health, November, 2018
This is a fascinating, while quirky, eccentric book, often factual, non-fictional, often clearly fictional. The fiction is mixed in with the fact to the point that you sometimes cannot tell which is which. The ‘I’ narrator informs us early on that she “started writing a book. It was a story for travelers, meant to be read on the train—what I would write for myself to read.” She continues as follows: “I was able to concentrate and became for some time a sort of gargantuan ear that listened to murmurs and echoes and whispers, far-off voices that filtered through the walls. But I never became a real writer . . . . In my writing, life would turn into incomplete stories, dreamlike tales, would show up from afar in odd dislocated panoramas, or in cross sections—and so it would be almost impossible to reach any conclusions as to the whole.”
This passage shows up on p. 13, but it is a good description of what is to come in the following four hundred pages of the book. That gargantuan ear travels the world, straining hard to listen, picking up images and setting them down in print. Halfway through the book, under the heading “Travel Tales” (212), the narrator seems to question her method of writing the book: “Am I doing the right thing by telling stories? Wouldn’t it be better to fasten the mind with a clip, tighten the reins, and express myself not by means of stories and histories, but with the simplicity of a lecture, where in sentence after sentence a single thought gets clarified, and then others are tacked onto it in the succeeding paragraphs? I could use quotes and footnotes . . . As it is I’m taking on the role of midwife, or of the tender of a garden whose only merit is at best sowing seeds and later to fight tediously against weeds . . . Tales have a kind of inertia that is never possible to fully control. They require people like me—insecure, indecisive, easily led astray. Naïve.”
Despite this admonition to herself, the narrator goes on with her midwifery, sowing her seeds. In the midst of her cogitations on travel psychology, anatomy, plastination, Dutch anatomists, freaks and freakish panopticons, she introduces several pure short stories. It is telling that the last of these, “Kairos,” which could also be titled “The Professor of Classics,” does introduce lectures to the text, and in these lectures the old prof protagonist expresses some of the most profound philosophical insights in the book.
This writer who confesses her inability to write a novel is not, apparently, the Olga Tokarczuk of the title page, since Tokarczuk has already written several novels. The narrative voice is, I believe, Tokarczuk’s representative, the fictional character she has chosen to write the book. This character tells us up front that she suffers from Recurrent Detoxification Syndrome, which consists of a repetitive and compulsive search for certain distorted and ugly images. I am, she says, “drawn to all things spoiled, flawed, defective, broken . . . . My weakness is for teratology and for freaks. I believe, unswervingly, agonizingly, that it is in freaks that Being breaks through to the surface and reveals its true nature.” Dictionary definition of teratology: (1) fantastic mythmaking or storytelling, in which monsters or prodigies play a large part; (2) (med.) the study of monstrosities, serious malformations, or marked deviations from the norm. Recurrent Detoxification Syndrome: I tried Googling this and found only a few ancillary references to treatments for alcoholism; I suspect that Tokarczuk has make this syndrome up, then had her narrator fall prey to it.
Airports, so we are told, sometimes host readings and book signings for travelers. “Somewhere in my backpack I still have the program from one such event: “The History and Foundations of Travel Psychology,” “The Development of Seventeenth Century Anatomy.” Here, neatly summarized, are two major preoccupations of Tokarczuk’s book as a whole. The first mention of a “museum of pathological anatomy” shows up on page 12, and throughout the book our oddball narrator—sometimes arm in arm with her fictional characters—visits such museums, cabinets of curiosities in a variety of countries. Her fascination with human anatomy, and with ways scientists preserve dead human anatomy pervades the pages of the book.
Frequently mentioned is the plastination of human tissue. A certain Dr. Blau, apparently fictional, devotes his life to plastinating bodies. “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. We will never learn how diverse the human species is, how unique each individual, if we are so quick to condemn bodies to destruction.” Elsewhere in the book reference is made to “these crafty plastinators, heirs of embalmers, of tanners, of anatomists and taxidermists.”
Later on a different character in a different story—a Polish emigrant who is returning home to help a former lover commit suicide—imagines that “soon enough, when the technology becomes more affordable, plastination will be available to all. You’ll be able to put up the bodies of your loved ones instead of putting up tombstones, with labels like, ‘So-and-so traveled in this very body for a few years. Then he left it at such-and-such an age.’” Imagine that. After completing the assisted suicide, this character stops off in Amsterdam, where she comes upon an exhibit of anatomy, with human specimens, and “spends two hours there, taking in the human body in all its possible permutations, perfectly preserved using the latest techniques.”
A good title for Tokarczuk’s book might be Panopticon, a word that shows up, by my count, five times in the text. A panopticon can be several different things: (1) an optical instrument, a kind of combination of a telescope and microscope; (2) a prison built radially, so that a guard at the central vantage point is able to keep his eye on all the inmates at once; (3) an exhibition room for novelties; a cabinet of curiosities. It is in the third meaning that the word best applies to Flights.
On the freak/anatomy theme there are long passages describing the work of famous scientists, such as Frederick Ruysch (1638-1731) of Holland. While traveling in Europe (in 1697) Tsar Peter the Great of Russia observed Ruysch’s dissections of human bodies and became fascinated with his collection of freakish anatomical specimens in glass jars, “swimming in fluid, a panopticon of the human imagination.” The narrator tells the story of how Peter purchased the Ruysch collection and shipped it to St. Petersburg.
In this tale much is made of Ruysch’s daughter and faithful collaborator, Charlotta, who is loathe to part with the collection. Like the narrator, Charlotta is a lover of freaks; “unlike her father, she is fascinated by what is flawed and imperfect. The microcephaly she managed to track down and bribe midwives for. Or the gargantuan intestines, hypertrophied, she got from surgeons. Medics from the provinces made Professor Ruysch’s daughter special offers of particular tumors, calves with five legs, the dead fetuses of twins with conjoined heads.” In a cursory check of facts about Ruysch online, I found mention of his daughter Rachel, a painter of still lifes, but no mention of Charlotta—who, I suspect, is a figment of Tokarczuk’s imagination. Just as I suspect that much of the material on “travel psychology” in Flights is concocted by the author herself.
The tale also describes how the ship transporting Ruysch’s specimens to Russia was becalmed for several days, and after the vodka ran out, madcap Russian sailors drank some of the solution preserving the specimens. Whether this actually happened or not, I don’t know. In a book constantly mixing fact with fiction it would take a lot of research to establish what actually happened, and what is made up. Fifty pages further on in the book the narrator herself visits the Kunstkammer Museum in St. Petersburg, where she gazes upon those anatomical specimens of freaks in glass jars—what Tsar Peter bought in Holland, including the Siamese twins joined at the head.
Relics are mentioned at several points in the book: Mano di Giovanni Battista (the hand of John the Baptist), Mano di Constantino (the hand of the Emperor Constantine). A short chapter titled “Relics: Peregrinatio Ad Loca Sancta [Pilgrimages to Holy Places],” tells us how in Prague, in the year 1677 “you could go to Saint Vitus Cathedral to see the breasts of Saint Anne, totally intact, kept in a glass jar; the head of Saint Stephen the Martyr; the head of John the Baptist.” Heads of John the Forerunner, in fact, abound in sacred places around the world, as relics have a way of reduplicating themselves. Here is some information garnered elsewhere, not in Tokarczuk’s book: at the time the Crusaders took Constantinople in June, 1203, the city’s magnificent Christian basilica, Hagia Sophia, held the following relics: “the robe of the Mother of God, the Crown of Thorns, two heads of John the Baptist.”
A hundred years earlier than the events of 1677 described above a certain Polish pilgrim in Malta describes how he was allowed “to kiss a portion of the head of Saint Ursula (this striking me as strange, for in Cologne, on the Rhine, I also saw the whole head, and touched my unworthy lips to it).” Holy heads are everywhere, as are icons that appear to have painted themselves. The most renowned of these in the Eastern Orthodox tradition is “The Saviour Not Made by Human Hands (Спас нерукотворный).” Tokarczuk discusses such miraculous images briefly in a short passage titled “Things Not Made By Human Hands.”
The story of another famous scientist, Philip Verheyen (1648-1710) a Flemish anatomist and surgeon, combines the theme of anatomy with that of body parts as religious relics and a rather freakish narrative. This centers on how, when he was twenty-eight, Verheyen’s leg became infected and had to be amputated. Verheyen begged that the amputated leg be preserved. As he was very religious “he must have taken it literally that in our resurrected bodies we would rise from the grave in our physical form, with Christ’s coming . . . . he was very fearful that his leg might rise on its own.” Consequently, the leg was drained of blood and “placed in a glass vessel filled with a balm of Nantes brandy and black pepper,” and when the patient came out of his anesthesia he was shown the severed leg, “just as mothers are shown newborns after giving birth.”
Tocarczuk has a lot of fun with this story, later describing the leg as “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.” Unfortunately, no one thinks of providing the amputated leg with a football to kick in its dreams, or a book to read: A Farewell to Arms. And Legs. Later episodes describe Verheyen’s phantom pain and itch in the place where the leg once was and his letters, late in life, to the amputated leg. Stories of how Verheyen dissected his own leg repeatedly for the rest of his life may also be apocryphal.
The tale of Verheyen’s disembodied leg and its long life in a preservative solution is a typical example of what is mostly a nonfictional history. But Tokarczuk embellishes upon the tale, tells it in ways that resemble creative fiction, dwells upon the fantastical and macabre. Similar to this is the story of Josephine Soliman von Feuchtersleben’s letters to Francis I, the emperor of Austria, in which she pleads for the release of her father’s mummified body—so that she can give it a Christian burial. Brought originally to Europe as a slave from Africa, Angelo Soliman was raised in high society. He was a highly educated man, who moved in aristocratic and artistic circles—a friend of Mozart and Haydn. Soliman served as a courtier in the court of Emperor Joseph, uncle to Francis.
After his death in 1796, Soliman’s body was mummified, in his daughter’s words “chemically treated and stuffed, and exhibited to human curiosity in the proximity of dead wild animals. I write to You, too, on behalf of the other stuffed human beings contained within that Cabinet of Natural Curiosities of his Royal Highness, since, as far as I know, they have no one of their own to stand up for them . . .”
The tone of Josephine’s letters becomes persistently less obsequious and more adamant, and in the third of them she demands that her father’s body be released. We know that the story is true, but are the letters real? Did Tokarczuk find them and translate them into Polish for her book? I doubt it. Although I may be wrong, I suspect that the author herself wrote the letters. In a narrative method typical of Tokarczuk—who likes to leave loose ends hanging—we are left wondering whether Soliman’s body was ever released and buried. His daughter Josephine died young; in the third of the letters she mentions that she is very ill, not likely to survive long. But did the emperor acquiesce to her request? Apparently not.
Fifty pages later in the book—in the middle of a totally different story, “Chopin’s Heart,” about how the great composer’s sister, following his funeral in Paris in 1849, returned his heart to his native Poland—the attentive reader will perk up his ears at this description of street fighting and mobs run amuck in Vienna, during the Revolution of 1848.
“They destroyed, too, the glass cases containing archeological treasures. Hurling fossils out onto the sidewalk, they shattered the windowpanes. In no time they had plundered the semiprecious stones; they then took to the skeletons and the stuffed animals. Some sort of spokesman of the people called for all the stuffed humans and other mummies to be given a proper Christian funeral, or at the very least for these proofs of the authorities’ usurpation of the human body to be destroyed. A great pyre was built; they burned everything they came across” (317-18). So ended the earthly existence of Angelo Soliman’s mummy.
Other narratives included in the book do not pretend to be anything other than pure fiction. The first of these, titled “Kunicki: Water (1),” describes how a Polish tourist, vacationing on a Croatian island, finds himself in a nightmare scenario. His wife and three-year-old child suddenly disappear into thin air. This story runs for twenty-five pages, then is abandoned for 280 pages, and when it resumes (now titled “Kunicki: Earth”), the protagonist Kunicki is back in Poland with his wife and child. But neither he, nor we the readers, know exactly what happened, how the woman and child managed to stay invisible on the tiny island for three days. In a word, the episode has unhinged the protagonist and is destroying his marriage. He is mystified by one Greek word, Kairos, which his wife has jotted down and left with her personal belongings. Later on, in a story given that word as its title, we learn that Kairos is, among other things, a minor Greek god, a low-ranking deity in the Greek pantheon.
In the midst of Kunicki’s travails we get a brief return to the weird leg leitmotif of the Verheyen story: “Legs. Feet. Even when he stops, when he sits down, they seem to keep going, they can’t restrain themselves, they cross a given space in small, unhurried steps. When he wants to restrain them, they rebel. Kunicki is afraid his legs will break out into a run, whisk him off, take him a way he would never agree to, will leap up into the air like they’re folk dancing . . .” This long story ends with nothing resolved, as the desperate Kunicki—now separated from his wife and child—prepares to return to the Croatian island, as if he could find the key to the maddening puzzle there.
There are several other purely fictitious stories included in the book. One, “Ash Wednesday Feast,” is the tale of Eryk the ferryman, who has journeyed the world over as a seaman, who has learned English while in jail, inspired by Melville’s Moby-Dick—Moby is another leitmotif of Flights, a guidebook that the narrator prefers to any guidebook in the traditional mode, which she despises. Another tale, “Godzone,” describes how a Polish woman, long since having emigrated to a far-flung subtropical country, receives a letter from a dying former lover, and then returns to Poland for the sole purpose of helping him kill himself.
Jennifer Croft’s translation into English is titled Flights, and there are plenty of airports and airplane flights in the book. But in the original Polish the title of Tokarczuk’s work is Bieguni, which means poles—not the people, the nationality, but as in North Pole or South Pole. Almost the exact word in Russian, however, бегуны (beguny) means runners, and the beg root connected with running shows up in many different Slavic languages. Polish: bieganie (running); Slovak: bežec (runner); Czech: běžec (runner); Russian: бегство (flight, escape), бегом (on the double), беглец (fugitive); Bulgarian: бягане (running), бягач (runner), and so on. Surely Tokarczuk, who has studied Russian and may even speak it fluently, is aware of the Slavic wordplay of her title, which is appropriate for a book in which characters—including the narrator—not only fly all over the place, but also do a lot of running about as well. Often they run in place, or flee, tearing at their hair and screaming, like Chicken Little.
Before we come to any of the book’s flights we already have running, in the person of running rivers. Among them is the Oder River of the author’s childhood, followed immediately by a chart of the world’s largest rivers on page 5. True to the eccentric spirit of Flights, the text is interlarded with various maps and charts, many of them of extreme antiquity. Here is the author as child, on the banks of the Oder: “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.”
As the old saying goes, if you keep on running, remain perpetually in motion, Death can never catch up with you. Flights is a book about things and people in motion: walking, flying, running, peregrinating, anything to avoid inertia. The message is reinforced throughout the book. “Fluidity, mobility, illusoriness—these are precisely the qualities that make us civilized. Barbarians don’t travel. They simply go places or conduct raids.” And again: “It is widely known, after all, that real life takes place in movement.” And again: “When we are in motion, there’s no time for such idle meditations [about how death permeates all of our surroundings]. Which is why to people on trips everything seems new and clean, virginal, and, in some sense, immortal.”
The climax of the book comes in another long fictional narrative, which is given the title of the book as a whole, Bieguni (Flights/ Runners). The story is introduced by one of Tokarczuk’s short set pieces, many of which I appreciate more than the longer fictional narratives. Often these short pieces shine with artistic brilliance, as this one does:
“IRKUTSK – MOSCOW
Flight from Irkutsk to Moscow. It takes off at 8:00 a.m. and lands in Moscow at the same time—at eight o’clock in the morning on that same day. It turns out to be right at sunrise, which means the whole flight takes place during dawn. Passengers remain in this one moment, a great peaceful Now, vast as Siberia itself.
So there should be time enough for confessions of whole lifetimes. Time elapses inside the plane but doesn’t trickle out of it.”
The implication is that if you could remain perpetually on that flight between Irkutsk and Moscow, you would never age and die. This dream of eternal life, however, is soon tempered by the next short piece, in which a man sitting beside the narrator on that flight, a man with a hole in his sock, informs her about the ubiquity of dark matter, which is out there, everywhere. “The worst part is we don’t know what it is. Or why.”
Upon landing in Moscow the narrator does not go to the one place that surely would attract this lover of mummies and preserved bodies: the tomb of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin on Red Square. Tocarczuk somehow bypassed this chance to comment on the most famous mummy in existence.
At the airport the narrator sees a sign that reinforces her main theme of perpetual motion:
МОБИЛЬНОСТЬ СТАНОВИТСЯ РЕАЛЬНОСТЬЮ
We are not told this, but the advertisement is obviously that for a mobile phone network. The Russian words are translated in the text as “Mobility Is Reality.” Should be, “Mobility Is Becoming A Reality,” but never mind. Immediately following this harbinger of our arrival in Moscow, we get a long fictional story (35 pages) about a Russian woman named Anna—she goes by the nickname Annushka, which is the name of Anna Karenina’s maid and that of her daughter, in Tolstoy’s famous novel. One fine day Annushka, who has a crippled son Petya and a husband mentally crippled by his time in prison, leaves home on a few errands but cannot bear to go back. Embarking on a different kind of flight, she flees. Annushka spends all day long—and night as well, until the system shuts down at one a.m.—riding the trains of the Moscow metro. After three days she returns home.
During her brief life as a peripatetic, Annushka encounters a crazed homeless woman, who, in a passage titled “What The Shrouded Runaway Was Saying,” goes full hilt in proselytizing for the life in perpetual motion. “Sway, go on, move. That’s the only way to get away from him. He who rules the world has no power over movement and knows that our body in motion is holy . . . . He reigns over all that is still and frozen, everything that’s passive and inert.” ‘He,’ so it turns out, is the Antichrist. “Once, long ago, the tsar tried to reform the world but he was vanquished, and the world fell into the hands of the Antichrist. God, the real one, the good one, became an exile from the world, the vessel of divine power shattered.” One righteous man surfaced, a soldier named Yefim. “He wandered from village to village, preaching the gloomy news. Flee, get out of your homes, go, run away, for only thus will you avoid the traps of the Antichrist. Any open battle with him will be lost outright. Leave whatever you possess, give up your land, and get out on the road.”
This tirade, which goes on for three pages, sums up the central theme of Flights, the idea of perpetual fleeing. But, as we have seen above in the piece about the incessant dawn of the airplane flight between Irkutsk and Moscow, remaining in the condition of sempiternal flight is impossible. The Antichrist, or at least Death—who may turn out to be a much nicer guy than the Antichrist—will eventually catch up with all of us. The final word on the theme of mobility is left to the old professor of classics—probably the most intelligent character in Tokarczuk’s book—in the story “Kairos”:
“In reality, movement does not exist. Like the turtle in Zeno’s paradox, we’re heading nowhere, if anything we’re simply wandering into the interior of a moment, and there is no end, nor any destination. And the same might apply to space—since we are all identically removed from infinity, there can also be no somewhere—nothing is truly anchored on any day, nor in any place.”
So you read a whole book about running, flying, fleeing, and you find out that there’s nowhere to run or fly or flee to. But we homosapiens will go on hoping, nonetheless, that someday we’ll find a somewhere, or at least a nowhere out there somewhere. Such is the “travel psychology” of the human race.
U.R. Bowie, author of Such Is the Scent of Our Sweet Opalescence