From the seventeenth century, we have the story of the Dutch anatomist Philip Verheyen, who dissected and drew pictures of his own amputated leg. From the eighteenth century, we have the story of a North African-born slave turned Austrian courtier stuffed and put on display after his death. In the nineteenth century, we follow Chopin’s heart as it makes the covert journey from Paris to Warsaw. In the present we have the trials of a wife accompanying her much older husband as he teaches a course on a cruise ship in the Greek islands, and the harrowing story of a young husband whose wife and child mysteriously vanish on a holiday on a Croatian island. With her signature grace and insight, Olga Tokarczuk guides the reader beyond the surface layer of modernity and towards the core of the very nature of humankind.
Zielony Balonik book club notes:
The book we discussed on August 5th 2017 was Olga Tokarczuk’s Bieguni. It was first published in 2007, awarded the prestigious Nike Literary Prize in 2008, republished in 2015 and translated into English two years later as Flights by Jennifer Croft.
Robin kicked off the discussion on a critical note. He did not enjoy the book. He found it core-less and tricksy and ended up feeling angry and frustrated by it. The writer may have interesting insights into psychology, it being her first profession, but she dishes them out with annoying arrogance. He and Ken wondered later on in the discussion how much of it was genuine and how much cod psychology.
Basia, on the other hand, loved the book and found much she could identify with several of the stories. The one about the woman in Moscow touched her most. She was impressed by the musings on death and on the need to keep moving in order to avoid getting jaded by the same surroundings.
The book also appealed to Magda, who is a frequent flyer and often engages in conversations with strangers on planes and at airports. Flying is such a massive thing these days (she said). When flying, you get to know bits of other people’s lives, all chopped up and inconsequential, just like they are in the book. Some are suspended in the middle then come back, others just remain suspended, with no outcome, no moral.
We wondered if Flights was an apt translation for the original title. Bieguni refers to an obscure old Russian orthodox sect who believe that the world is awash in evil and man must keep moving to avoid getting contaminated by it. None of that is reflected in the translation. But on the other hand, as Ken pointed out, the English word does convey most of the meaning: the book is about ‘flights’ as in mode of transport, ‘flight’ as in escape, and it is ‘flighty’, or whimsical in its setup.
Ken liked what he has read so far, which was about half of the book, though he wasn’t entirely sure he ‘got’ it. He liked the writing style, the stories’ diversity and the accurate depiction in them of the times we live in. He was intrigued by the apparent juxtaposition of transience, or flightiness, on the one hand and permanence on the other, as in the themes of body preservation or in the tying of events to (somewhat inconsistently detailed) maps.
Tom made a similar observation about the fluidity, the constant need for change versus solidity, the desire for preservation. Like Ken, he admired the variety of the stories and, after initial reservations about their ‘jumpiness’, he ended up enjoying at least some of the ride.
Robert commented on the fact that never before in the history of Zielony Balonik had so many people abandoned a book half way through. He himself had very mixed feelings and only persevered out of duty. If he liked some bits, he disliked others infinitely more.
Jenny joined the choir of detractors and did so beautifully and eloquently in a piece which will appear on the website. Jenny’s final word: this book may never have been published had the author’s name not been O.T.
Luckily for O.T., Grażyna had nothing but praise for Bieguni which she loved and is reading for the second time. So the discussion ended on the opposite BIEGUN to where it started…
Ewa S S (who had not read the book at all)