Flights by Olga Tokarczuk, translated from Polish by Jennifer Croft

Flights BY Olga Tokarczuk. Riverhead Books. Hardcover, 416 pages. $26.
The cover of Flights

Airplane food is a subject of little glory, normally fodder for comedy routines and small talk. But acclaimed Polish author Olga Tokarczuk’s novel Flights takes it, and the other small indignities of travel, as a matter of deep philosophical importance. Flights, which was translated into English by Jennifer Croft, focuses on the mundane ways we express our humanity while we’re en route somewhere, and, fittingly, includes long paragraphs on travel-sized shampoo, redeye layovers, and hotel pay-per-view pornography. Tokarczuk’s approach is precise: every detail, from flight times to the labels on travel toiletries, is accounted for.

Flights is made up of fragmentary sections, organized according to what Tokarczuk calls “constellationality.” There is no star protagonist embarking on a singular journey. Instead, various characters crowd the page, embarking on lonely travels that rarely intersect. Their ranks include a hapless ferry captain, a traveling anatomist, and a biologist returning to Poland to euthanize a childhood friend. There are also visitors from history, carving out journeys of their own. In one recurring series, Tokarczuk explores the infamous case of Angelo Soliman, a black man and prominent Freemason in eighteenth-century Vienna, whose corpse was stuffed and displayed in the natural imperial history museum. In another, she embellishes the legendary efforts of Chopin’s sister to smuggle the composer’s heart back to Poland after his death. Each narrative is preserved in the separate bell-jar of an individual journey, and yet the book’s toggling between centuries never feels jarring. Tokarczuk’s dry prose works to bind these fragments together, pervading the book like a quiet, unobtrusive hum.

A second obsession lurks in many of these stories. Both Tokarczuk and her travelers are fascinated by human anatomy and the idea of the body as a vehicle. Characters visit dissections or collections of embalmed human remains lying in the unsavory basements of European museums. Their curiosity about corporeal reality hints at an overarching theme: that the unknown corners of the globe have a dark parallel inside of each of us. As one character remarks, the “parts of one’s own body are discovered as though one were forging one’s way upriver in search of sources.” In another section, Tokarczuk likens peering “inside the world” to looking at an x-ray.

Tokarczuk’s characters are most riveting when they’re a bit lost—when we catch them dozing mid-flight and unsure of what time or day it is. In a section titled “Travel Psychology,” an academic lecturer—in an airport, naturally—explains that the impulse to travel is a desire that “merely indicates direction, but never destination.” This mantra resonates throughout the book, producing an aimlessness that feels unfamiliar, and, occasionally, oppressive. Travel writing usually presents a linear narrative—asdepartures and returns easily correspond with beginnings and endings. But Tokarczuk complicates this. Her characters, like the book’s episodic structure, resist neat demarcations. They prefer to wander in loops and circles. The truism that the journey is more important than the destination becomes absurdly dramatized, as in one section where a woman spends three straight days purposelessly riding the metro. The idea of her super-commute, undertaken without book or podcast, is nightmarish only to the reader.

For these ambling characters, Tokarczuk suggests, it is impossible to understand the world through the isolated pushpins of individually visited countries. One must “assemble a whole” and develop a panoramic view, “thanks to which you notice links between objects, their network of reflections.” The extreme manifestation of this all-encompassing perspective is the endless surveillance that shadows modern travel. On the super-commute, the subway rider meets a homeless woman who stands on the same street corner every day, ranting that “everything that is defined, that spans from here to there, that fits into a framework, is written down in registers.” She speaks paranoiacally of an unnamed “Tsar” who makes use of passports, customs, and tickets to capture all who pass. Those thinking of escape will be “nailed to the cross” and immobilized.

Flights shows that the desire to render the world knowable can be maddening. On a holiday to a Croatian island, a man named Kunicki loses sight of his wife and child when they wander off. After three days, and a helicopter police search, they turn up unexpectedly, even though every part of the small island has been carefully inspected. The husband refuses to accept his wife’s claim that she and the child had camped out in an abandoned vineyard. He is unable to cope, not because he thinks his wife is dishonest or unfaithful, but because she has become unlocatable. As their family disintegrates, Kunicki spends hours on his computer searching for satellite images of the island, hoping its blurry pixels will give the lie to his wife’s story. A bird’s-eye view can ruin a marriage.

As I neared the end of Flights, I realized I had stopped searching for a moral in each of these stories. The book is like a map: including disparate parts not because they cause or connect to each other, but because their contours help clarify a wider, impersonal whole. In this way, Tokarczuk shows that even the loneliest traveler fits into a bigger scheme. In travel, “people are forced to be together, physically, close . . . as though the aim of travel were another traveler.” Even during flight, we find that, in ways both sinister and touching, we cannot escape each other.

Zoë Hu is a graduate student at Columbia University. She has previously written for Al Jazeera English and the LA Review of Books.