Flights (2017)

Polish title: Bieguni (2007)
Translated by: Jennifer Croft
Published by: Fitzcarraldo Editions
Originally published by: Wydawnictwo Literackie

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.

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We met to discuss this book on 5 August 2017.

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)

One comment on “Flights”

  1. Personal view from Jenny Robertson

    Bieguny, h’m. For me, it was a long and difficult journey, often an annoying one. I have to admit I skipped bits, then wished I hadn’t and went back and re-read them. But I felt cheated. I wanted to feel enriched by the journeys Olga Tokarczuk takes us on, however tedious or seemingly random the way, instead I felt frustrated and sometimes bored. I read the book in Polish, perhaps compounding my difficulties, although the style is not difficult, it is often lyrical, contemporary and always crystal clear. No, the opacity comes from the plot, or lack of it, the many meanderings and digressions which reminded me of, for example, W. G. Sebald, a writer of undoubted importance whose disquisitions, however erudite, also bore me. This probably makes me a timid “stay-at-home” reader, like Tokarczuk’s parents who want to travel only to come back home, rather than one ready to embark on a long flight into the unknown. I found that I was noting in the margin, “so what?” and “very beautiful writing, but where is it going?” (The writing in question was right at the beginning where Tokarczuk narrates an experience from her childhood when she discovers that she is alone in the house, everyone has disappeared, she is alone in the semi-darkness:

    “Nothing happens, the march of darkness stops in front of the doors of the house, the whole tumult of darkness falls silence, creating a thick skin (kożuch), like boiled milk that is growing cold”(my translation).
    And here Tokarczuk states her thesis, “Najbardziej dotkliwy jest bezruch… Immobility is the most severe pain of all.” Recalling herself as a little girl, she announces that, watching a river and hearing adults talk about the recovery of drowned bodies, she understood that “to be on the move is always better than to be at rest, that change is more noble than permanence; that to be motionless is to rot, to decompose, to degenerate and turn into ash while things in motion will last, even eternally.”

    As someone brought up in Scotland where stone carvings, stone dwellings, even in ruin, speak of life long gone, I can’t agree with this. Think Skara Brae in Orkney, think initials carved over lintels in old houses, the trace of a cross on a standing stone facing out to sea, a dumb witness to the fluidity of civilisation and belief systems. But think too of Poland’s shifted boundaries, of tumbling Jewish tombstones inscribed in a lost language, of Polish inscriptions in buildings now in Ukraine and German lettering appearing on house walls in Poland, of a Europe beset by challenge and change, of migrants who must move to survive and we see Flights is a work (I can’t call it a “novel”) for our times.

    Tokarczuk sets out her stall:

    “Anyone who has ever tried to write a novel knows what an arduous task it is, undoubtedly one of the worst ways of occupying oneself. You have to remain within yourself all the time, in solitary confinement. It’s a controlled psychosis, an obsessive paranoia manacled to work, completely lacking in the feather pens and bustles and Venetian masks we would ordinarily associate with it, clothed instead in a butcher’s apron and rubber boots, eviscerating knife in hand. You can only barely see from that writerly cellar the feet of passers-by, hear the rapping of their heels. Every so often someone stops and bends down and glances in through the window, and then you get a glimpse of a human face, maybe even exchange a few words. But ultimately the mind is so occupied with its own act, a play staged by the self for the self in a hasty, makeshift cabinet of curiosities peopled by author and character, narrator and reader, the person describing and the person being described, that feet, shoes, heels, and faces become, sooner or later, mere components of that act.” (tr Jennifer Croft)

    And so the author has donned her butcher’s apron and taken up the eviscerating knife in order to compose her account of movement, travel and journeys, accompanied, as all journeys should be, by maps, which I however, found difficult to decipher or to relate to the text which shifts from time and place, throwing in what appear random anecdotes: a man on holiday in Croatia loses his wife and child. Many hundred pages later the text takes up their story, only without closure, because neither the bereft father, nor by extension, ourselves, the readers, ever learn where the wife actually went. We read of a Flemish farmhand become surgeon Philip Verheyen (1648 – 1710) who dissects his own amputated leg to discover the Achilles tendon – and as someone who once tore mine I ought to be grateful for that piece of information, but I wonder what it has it to do with poor distressed Annuszka whose husband has returned from hard labour in Vorkuta a changed, silent unloving man? Annuszka can no longer stand the endless care of her handicapped son, the do-gooding mother-in-law and takes flight through the Moscow metro, joined other non-comformist drop-outs. What will happen to Annuszka, we wonder, when her last kopecks run out?

    At Zielony Balonik we have already read other books by Olga Tokarczuk as well as Zofia Nałkowska’s Boundary. Flights unashamedly pushes the boundaries of what we expect from fiction: a beginning, middle and end, plot, characterisation, tension, form. As it happens my first published collection of poems is entitled Beyond the Border, so I ought to welcome Tokarczuk’s tour to places and people beyond the boundaries of our usual experience, unveiling our own skin, exposing our own anatomy, often in gruesome and, it seemed to me, almost voyeuristic dissection of human and animal oddity.

    From the extracts I have read of the translation I must applaud Jennifer Croft for the clarity and flow of the English text. Polish presents particular challenges to a translator. For example, Tokarczuk, pushing against male stereotypes writes: Lecz nigdy nie stałam się prawdziwą pisarką czy lepiej powiedieć pisarzem, bo w tym rodzaju słowo to brzmi poważniej.” (p. 18). Rather than battle with the Polish feminine form and perhaps use the old-fashioned „authoress”, Jennifer Croft simply leaves the explanation out: “But I never became a real writer.”

    Indeed the hardest thing to translate is the title itself. I take exception to Croft’s choice, “Flights” because it no way represents the personal meaning of “Bieguni.” Perhaps “escapees” would be better. The real Bieguni are the Russian ‘stranniki’, wandering pilgrims – and the word is cognate with “odd” and “strange”. Tokarczuk shows us those oddities, the escapees at various times and in various places. In defence of the title however, Tokarczuk’s long journey ends with a take-off through the departure gate, on board the aeroplane where “Stewardesses, beautiful as angels, check our competence for the journey… in their smile we seem to see a hidden promise that perhaps we shall be born again and this time it will be in the right time and the right place.”

    Perhaps, having reached the end of this complex book, I too shall get on board this tantalising Flight once again, deal with the many thought-provoking issues that the author is unafraid to raise and push back my own understanding of what literature is and where it can take us. This is a brave and challenging book but in my view it tries to be too outré, too clever. Yes, we see human life and pain, we see superficiality and the false escape of packaged travel, we see suffering and defiance in a bleak view of the world that offers little hope, but the episodic structure, the random meanderings do not take us to anything other than a hope of a homecoming in a place that may not be the right one after all.

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