I have recently read this year’s winner of the Man Booker International Prize ‘Flights’ by Olga Tokarczuk which was first published in Poland back in 2007 and has been translated by Jennifer Croft. I didn’t have time to shadow the MBIP last spring but as August is Women in Translation Month, this seemed like a good time to find out what to make of it. ‘Flights’ is about an unnamed woman and her reflections on travelling – and that’s about it as far as plot goes in this very fragmented book which can only be described as a “novel” in the loosest sense possible as it is more of a collection of thematically linked observations and vignettes.
‘Flights’ has drawn stylistic comparisons to ‘Austerlitz’ by W. G. Sebald in its meditative prose style and use of images (there are several illustrations and maps throughout). The appeal of going to new places and the freedom it offers for citizens particularly in the post-Cold War context is a key theme. However, for a novel supposedly about travel, the purpose of the narrator’s journey is never made clear and I found it difficult to tolerate her aimlessness at times.
The narrator drifts restlessly through the sterile and impersonal atmosphere of various airports and cities, reflecting on the behaviour of the passengers around her while in transit. Other stories and essays are woven into the narrative and offer some interesting metaphors about borders, migration and human anatomy and how we make sense of the world and our place in it. While the shorter sections about the narrator’s own experiences and observations are easily digestible and elegantly written and translated, I skimmed some of the lengthier digressions and the links which connected all of these things together were either vague or unresolved.
Like the other Fitzcarraldo novels I have read by Mathias Enard and Clemens Meyer, ‘Flights’ is a dense text and unashamedly highbrow. I didn’t love it as much as many other reviewers mostly because I wasn’t anticipating it to be so similar to Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell in terms of its structure, but there is much to admire in the quality of Croft’s translation and the diversity of subjects covered and it is undoubtedly a bold choice by the Man Booker International Prize judges after last year’s surprising win for A Horse Walks Into A Bar by David Grossman.