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Posts Tagged ‘Olga Tokarczuk’

I have wanted to read Olga Tokarczuk’sFlights‘ ever since I heard about it. I finally got a chance to read it for Women in Translation Month.

So, what is ‘Flights‘ about? It has been described as a novel about travel, human anatomy, life, death, motion, migration. It is all that, but one thing it is not, is a novel. It is like we walk into a forest filled with stories, and we discover a writer who takes everything that she likes and she knows, sculpts that into a beautiful, wild shape and squeezes it into the pages of a book and presents it to us. It is a strange, wild literary animal and it defies classification. For want of a better word, it has been called a novel. Reading it is a fascinating experience, because there is no overall plot, there are no characters who appear through the book. There are stories which are short and which are long – some of which are half a page long and others which are thirty pages long – some of which are based on facts and which appear to be descriptions of actual happenings, while others appear to be fictional –though there are some which appear to inhabit the twilight region between fact and fiction, in which the facts are inextricably woven into the fictional imagination of the author. The best we can say about this book is that it resembles a series of diary entries, and we can open a random page, find the start of the nearest section and start reading from there, without any loss of continuity. There are some stories which have multiple parts, which sometimes immediately follow one another, and which at other times are separated by other stories for a few pages. It is possible to identify these different parts and get to the beginning of that story. There is one story in which two parts are separated by hundreds of pages, and that is the only one in which the parts are hard to connect if we are reading randomly, because these two parts can be read independently too. Outside of this, this book can be read as we please, randomly. I don’t know whether that was the intention of the author. Reading the book is like reading Pascal’sPensées‘ or Marcus Aurelius’Meditations‘ or Jules Renard’sJournals‘ or Madame de Sevigne’sCollected Letters‘ – we can start reading from anywhere and end reading anywhere. The author seems to have given over the control of the reading experience totally to the reader. It is very interesting to contemplate on.

This book was written in Polish originally and was translated into English a couple of years back. If this book had originally been written in English, it probably wouldn’t have seen the light of the day. Most mainstream publishers of fiction in English, who give importance to regular predictable elements like a good first page, a good first paragraph, a plot, character development, conflict in the story, a surprise ending and things like that, wouldn’t have touched this book with a barge pole. Creative writing teachers and students would have critiqued the book adversely during their classes and literary agents would have asked the author to rewrite the book with a plot. That is the state of literature written in English today. I am glad Olga Tokarczuk didn’t write in English. I am glad she wrote in Polish. I am glad she experimented with form and created this incredibly beautiful and endlessly fascinating literary work, which defies classification. I am glad that when the English speaking world has become predictable, European writers continue to take literary risks and produce these wild masterpieces. And I am glad that this beautiful indie publisher called Fitzcarraldo Editions brought out this book in English translation and introduced this strange, glorious, wild literary being to us. Fitzcarraldo Editions, to whom we should be eternally thankful, for publishing this and other great innovative literary works, which were unheard of before.

The book has many beautiful passages and my highlighting pen didn’t stop working. I am sharing a few below.

“Describing something is like using it – it destroys; the colours wear off, the corners lose their definition, and in the end what’s been described begins to fade, to disappear. This applies most of all to places. Enormous damage has been done by travel literature – a veritable scourge, an epidemic. Guidebooks have conclusively ruined the greater part of the planet; published in editions numbering in the millions, in many languages, they have debilitated places, pinning them down and naming them, blurring their contours. Even I, in my youthful naiveté, once took a shot at the description of places. But when I would go back to those descriptions later, when I’d try to take a deep breath and allow their intense presence to choke me up all over again, when I’d try to listen in on their murmurings, I was always in for a shock. The truth is terrible : describing is destroying.”

“Many people believe that there exists in the world’s coordinate system a perfect point where time and space reach an agreement. This may even be why these people travel, leaving their homes behind, hoping that even by moving around in a chaotic fashion they will increase their likelihood of happening upon this point. Landing at the right time in the right place – seizing the opportunity, grabbing the moment and not letting go – would mean the code to the safe has been cracked, the combination revealed, the truth exposed. No more being passed by, no more surfing coincidences, accidents and turns of fate. You don’t have to do anything – you just have to show up, sign in at that one single configuration of time and place. There you will find your great love, happiness, a winning lottery ticket or the revelation of the mystery everyone’s been killing themselves over in vain for all these years, or death. Sometimes in the morning one even has the impression that this moment is close by, that today might be the day it will arrive.”

“The internet is a fraud. It promises so much – that it will execute your every command, that it will find you what you’re looking for; execution, fulfilment, reward. But in essence that promise is a kind of bait, because you immediately fall into a trance, into hypnosis. The paths quickly diverge, double and multiple, and you go down them, still chasing an aim that will now get blurry and undergo some transformations. You lose the ground beneath your feet, the place you started from just gets forgotten, and your aim finally vanishes from sight, disappears in the passage of more and more pages, businesses that always promise more than they can give, shamelessly pretending that under the flat plane of the screen there is some cosmos. But nothing could be more deceptive…”

“It wasn’t a big river, only the Oder, but I, too, was little then. It had its place in the hierarchy of rivers, which I later checked on the maps – a minor one, but present, nonetheless, a kind of country viscountess at the court of the Amazon Queen. But it was more than enough for me. It seemed enormous. It flowed as it liked, essentially unimpeded, prone to flooding, unpredictable. Occasionally along the banks it would catch on some underwater obstacle, and eddies would develop. But the river flowed on, parading, concerned only with its hidden aims beyond the horizon, somewhere far off to the north. Your eyes couldn’t keep focused on the water, which pulled your gaze along up past the horizon, so that you’d lose your balance.
To me, of course, the river paid no attention, caring only for itself, those changing, roving waters into which – as I later learned – you can never step twice.

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.”

Have you read Olga Tokarczuk’sFlights‘? What do you think about it?

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