“I have never been a big fan of art museums, which I would happily exchange, for cabinets of curiosities where collections are comprised of the rare, the unique, the bizarre and the freakish.” So begins one of Flights’ opening stories. Not a fan of books with fancy titles like the Man Booker, I was reluctant to pick up Flights. Flights, a novel by Olga Tokarczuk follows a non-linear narrative that is described best as peeping into strangers’ lives for an intense second before it is taken away from us.
There is no fixed plot, which makes it confusing, but it is precisely this effect of confusion that Olga wants to create because ultimately chaos brings us closer to the loneliness of human existence. Of course, there are some main, memorable characters.
A man whose wife and child disappeared in an island slowly descends into madness trying to figure out where they went those two days. A woman pleads with The King of Austria to return her father’s body so she can bury him as per Catholic rituals. Another woman, unable to bear the monotony of taking care of her immobilized son runs away and stays with a homeless woman on the underground Russian metro occasionally sniffing cocaine. A man writes letters to his amputated leg; another complains about the pretentiousness of Psychology, of the trouble of having to label everything and change what does not go according to what we know. Perhaps this is a metaphor for the book itself.
Another man runs away from his dead boss’s wife who makes a move on him while all he wanted to do was explore his boss’s work. Maybe it is this feeling of flight, of yearning for change and yet desiring that things do not change that Olga wants us to understand, to show us how we feel lonely in the ways we do.
Flights is about how we make sense of what journeys mean to us. They travel to search for themselves but ultimately lose a part of themselves because it is when travelling, being unknown that we feel vulnerably brave. Maybe this is because why, when travelling everything seems new (though we have already seen it in picture books) because we feel newly born. Travelling allows a rebirth in that sense. Which is also why when we return to our mundane lives, the prospect of shedding our lives again to adopt new identities when travelling is all that keeps us sane.
Olga wants us to enjoy living in the moment, to not ask the how and why of how we got here and whether it is worth it but to just enjoy the moment. Her stories that have a way of picking up from nowhere, giving you intensity and ultimately running away from you before you make sense of what has happened are also like this. Even if one can condemn the book, saying it is a patchwork of random things they cannot deny that it demands your attention. This is also her solution of the loneliness of existing- to simply just exist.
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- Is Flights about external journeys we make to find ourselves? - 13th December 2019