Unmapping: On Olga Tokarczuk's FLIGHTS
In 2015, after receiving the Nike Award for her most recent novel, The Books of Jacob, the Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk gave a televised interview that earned her a barrage of hate mail, including death threats. When Jennifer Croft, one of Tokarczuk’s English translators, went searching for the source of this outrage, she found it in these remarks by Tokarczuk:
We have come up with this history of Poland as an open, tolerant country, as a country uncontaminated by any issues with its minorities. Yet we committed horrendous acts as colonizers, as a national majority that suppressed the minority, as slave-owners and as the murderers of Jews.
The rabid response to Tokarczuk’s measured call to scrutinize Poland’s history and acknowledge its complicity in atrocities is unsurprising, given the alarming recent resurgence of the Polish far right. Consider the lingering controversy over the use of the term “Polish death camps” to refer to concentration camps located in Poland, which culminated earlier this year in the passing of a law that made it illegal to attribute any complicity in the Holocaust to Poland as a nation, as Tokarczuk did in her remarks. Following international pressure from Israel and Jews around the world, Poland softened the law by removing criminal penalties in June. But the law itself remains—as do the political and cultural forces interested in policing language to preserve an image of Polish purity.
This is not the Poland in which Tokarczuk expected to find herself when she wrote Flights, a novel originally published in 2007, brought to English in Croft’s elegant translation in 2017, and finally released in the United States this past August. Tokarczuk told the New York Times, “Twelve years ago”—when she was writing Flights—“there was no mention of the idea of walls or borders, which were originally adopted by totalitarian systems. Back then I must admit that I was sure that we had put totalitarianism behind us.” Today, totalitarianism no longer seems like a relic.
Though Flights is a deeply political novel, it does not center that politics explicitly. Travel is its central subject. The unnamed narrator describes herself as constitutionally predisposed to constant motion. “My energy,” she writes, “derives from movement—from the shuddering of buses, the rumble of planes, trains’ and ferries’ rocking.” She embodies wanderlust as an exaggerated extreme; because the reader learns little about her life that doesn’t relate to her restlessness, she emerges less as a fictional representation of a human being than as an archetype, an organizing principle for a meditation on motion. And not just any kind of motion, but motion for its own sake. The narrator describes her parents’ travels as instances of “timid tourism” because “they left in order to return.” The narrator, on the other hand, leaves to leave. She leaves to live.
Flights, too, finds its narrative energy in restlessness. “I did not inherit whatever gene it is that makes it so that when you linger in a place you start to put down roots,” the narrator writes, and the novel performs this reluctance to linger. It’s comprised of hundreds of narrative fragments, many briefer than a page. The narrator describes her own attempts to write, and though she does not say so explicitly, the reader is invited to understand the novel itself as the narrator’s book: “a story for travelers, meant to be read on the train,” in which “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.” Sometimes the narrator, in spite of herself, does linger long enough in these “incomplete stories” to allow the reader to become emotionally rooted in the drama. But often, as she says, she dips in for a moment—enough for a glimpse, a wink, a flash of insight—and continues on her way.
The entire narrative project embodies a repeated exceeding of the self’s boundaries. Flights’ narrator epitomizes the human being not only in flux, but also in total rejection of her own non-relational singularity. Early in the novel, she admires the “undulating ribbon” of a river in a section that immediately follows a description of her own “distinct outline” as “an outline that quivers and undulates, and in so doing, hurts.” The river, the narrator observes, “flowed as it liked, essentially unimpeded, prone to flooding, unpredictable.” Flights takes on the river’s structure in its flowing, unmindful of borders’ artificial impositions. The narrator collects stories—her own and others’—into a single heterogeneous collection as a way of disputing boundedness as a principle, in relation either to land or to people.
The notion of firm boundaries, the narrator suggests, is the nefarious origin of the valorization of borders. (As Tokarczuk told the New York Times, Poland and other European nations have recently rejected the cosmopolitan spirit that reigned when she was writing Flights to become “focused on their borders once again”—a focus with disastrous consequences for refugees seeking asylum.) The narrator describes her university education in psychology as propagating a notion of human beings as “made up of defenses, of shields and armor, that we are cities whose architecture essentially comes down to walls, ramparts, strongholds: bunker states.” To this vision of the human psyche as a proto-state, already containing the seeds of totalitarian nationalism, the novel counterposes “travel psychology,” a discipline whose scholars the narrator encounters delivering ad hoc lectures in airports. Travel psychology, which, in the words of one scholar, “studies people in transit, persons in motion,” offers an understanding of human beings more in line with the narrator’s worldview than the one she was taught in school. “If we wish to catalog humankind in a convincing way,” the scholar explains,
we can do so only by placing people in some sort of motion, moving from one place toward 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. This has meant that for some time in travel psychology there have been certain prevailing voies claiming that there can be no other psychology besides travel psychology.
Many of the collected fragments that make up Flights have to do with amputated human body parts, preserved for reasons either sacred or scientific. One early passage considers the catalogue of relics one could see at the Saint Vitus Cathedral in Prague in 1677: “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.” Two of the novel’s more extended narratives follow Dr. Blau, an anatomist as interested in techniques for preserving the limbs of the deceased as he is in creepily cataloguing photos of his young lovers’ vulvas.
The significance of this unsettling line of inquiry becomes clear as the novel turns to a fictionalized account of the life of the Flemish surgeon Philip Verheyen, who was diverted from a career as a priest by the amputation of his left leg and whose accomplishments include naming the Achilles tendon. Tokarczuk stunningly animates the apocryphal story of Verheyen experimenting on his own amputated limb, and she attributes to him a set of haunting philosophical writings, Letters to My Amputated Leg, in which he attempts to make sense of the strange, “phantom” sensations he experiences where his leg once was. “Why,” he asks,
do I feel this lack, sense this absence? Are we perhaps condemned to wholeness, and every fragmentation, every quartering, will only be a pretense, will happen on the surface, underneath which, however, the plan remains intact, unalterable? Does even the smallest fragment still belong to the whole? If the world, like a great glass orb, falls and shatters into a million pieces—doesn’t something great, powerful, and infinite remain a whole in this?
The way Verheyen’s story is contextualized within Flights lets the reader see what he, perhaps, does not: that the hypothetical shattering of the globe has, in fact, already occurred, in its segmentation into states. Borders sever like a cut to amputate a limb; parts long for a lost wholeness. Verheyen’s theory also offers a compelling way of understanding Flights’ own unity in diffusion. The assembled narrative fragments tend toward one another in a struggle for singularity.
Other narrative threads take up this same theme in a more psychological, interpersonal mode. In the novel’s most sustained attempt at narrative linearity, three separate fragments—two early, another near the book’s end—follow Kunicki, a man who, while on vacation with his wife and son on the Croatian island of Vis, loses track of them and spends days searching. In the final section, Kunicki’s wife and son have long since turned up and they’ve all returned home, but what he sees as his wife’s failure to properly account for their absence has caused a devastating rift in their relationship. Kunicki—or the narrator; often the boundary between her and the other characters is, appropriately, difficult to mark—conceptualizes his torment in terms that recall Verheyen’s analysis, here transported from the anatomical to the emotional: “what he feels must be a phantom pain, unreal, the pain of every incomplete, jagged form that by its nature longs for wholeness.” The distances between loved ones can be another cruel kind of cut.
Flights’ historical forays draw so heavily from the Enlightenment, it seems, because the novel is interested in reckoning with the legacy of that era’s imposition of order onto a fundamentally disordered world. Flights certainly does not simply stand against the Enlightenment and all it represents. It’s even playfully enamored with its expansive knowledge-seeking and ordering. Into the organized chaos of the main text, Tokarczuk occasionally places the images of maps—of China, of Russia, of Jerusalem, of Odysseus’ meandering path home from Troy. In all their restrained geometry, they irrupt into the narrative flux and supply its counterimage. But the novel is seriously critical of the age of discovery. One mode this takes is mournful contemplation. The narrator prefaces the story of Verheyen with a prologue on the year 1542, which marked the appearance of major works by Copernicus and Vesalius—cosmological and physiological, respectively:
Needless to say, neither book contained everything—but can anything ever contain everything? Copernicus was missing the rest of the solar system, planets like Uranus, which was still waiting for the right time to be discovered, on the eve of the French Revolution. Vesalius, meanwhile, lacked a number of specific mechanical solutions in the human body, spans, joints, connections—such as, just to give one example, the tendon that joins the calf to the heel.
But maps of the world, of this internal and that external world, had already been drawn up, and that order, once glimpsed, irradiated the mind, etching into it the primary—the fundamental—lines and planes.
But another of Flights’ modes for considering the Enlightenment’s legacy fumes with immediate political urgency. The novel includes a series of imagined letters from Josefine Soliman, the daughter of the real-life Angelo Soliman, a man who was kidnapped as a child from Africa and became an Austrian courtier, only to have his body stuffed and put on display upon his death. In the letters, Soliman begs for the end of this indignity and the return of her father’s body, so he can be buried. She concludes her final letter with a subtle argument in support of the claim that no human ruler should control a man’s body after his death. As part of that argument, she writes: “The establishment of countries and of the boundaries between them demands of the human body that it remain in a clearly delineated space; the existence of visas and passports holds in check the body’s natural desire to roam.” This is one consequence of the Enlightenment project of ceaseless delineation.
In a later, seemingly unrelated fragment, a woman en route to Poland witnesses this disturbing scene:
The airport officials attempt to evaluate, with their expert gaze, who among the passengers might be armed with an explosive, gazing particularly at those with darker skin and at the girls wearing headscarves, who are chipper and twittering. It would seem that the world where she is heading, standing right on the border of it now, just behind the yellow line, is governed by a different set of rules, and that its grim and angry rumbles reach all the way here.
The targeted restriction of movement this woman observes is the great grandchild of what Soliman speaks of in her letter. Here, Tokarczuk has sent us a dispatch from the past that turns out to have eerily augured the future into which it has arrived. A future in which 60,000 people marched in Warsaw in honor of Polish independence, some carrying signs bearing slogans such as “Clean Blood” and “White Europe.” A future in which the Polish prime minister declared that Poland, contravening European Union quotas, “will not be receiving migrants from the Middle East and Northern Africa.” A future in which the heightened policing of the nation’s borders comes coupled with the heightened policing of the language used to speak about the nation and its history. Flights, though never polemical, stands in clear opposition both to the essential violence of borders and to the whitewashing of histories of violence. In the novel’s most obviously political moments, Tokarczuk’s light touch briefly gives way to a more direct mode of address. It’s just enough to clarify the novel’s political stakes without sacrificing subtlety. The marvel of Flights is that it carries such weight with such grace. In all its febrile flux, the novel both elegizes this broken world and beckons near a new one, lying beneath the lines that mar the globe.