When this ingenious book lifts off, it's magical — and unlike anything you've ever read

Flights by Olga Tokarczuk CR: Penguin
Credit: Penguin

Flights (Book)

In its original Polish, Olga Tokarczuk’s International Man Booker Prize-winning opus had another title: Bieguni, named for a fictional sect of Slavic nomads who wander the planet, seeking freedom and godliness in constant motion. Understandably, international publishers decided that many readers might not be wooed by a word that sounded like a small dumpling or some obscure form of Eastern European jiujitsu. And the more prosaic stand-in they chose does feel like an apt metaphor for a novel that contains so many kinds of flight — of fancy, of memory, of actual airplanes.

But it’s also probably not quite right to call it a novel in any traditional sense. Instead, Tokarczuk — who is considered a literary superstar in her homeland, though this is only her third work to appear in English — seems to pour the contents of her incandescent mind onto the page; an endless, only tenuously connected series of synaptic flashes and sparks. (It’s impossible to know exactly what choices translator Jennifer Croft had to make with this labyrinthine text, but enormous credit goes to her, too; she rightly shared the Booker.)

If Flights has a theme, it’s travel: the urge to slip through space and time and find revelation in the provisional places that don’t appear on maps or in guidebooks. Some bits read like campfire tales — stories of an inebriated, Moby-Dick-quoting ferryboat captain gone rogue on his daily route, or a foolish prince straight out of Arabian Nights. Others feel like small unsettling survey courses in science and history (the evolution of embalming; the amputation that drove a depressive 16th-century Dutchman to discover the Achilles tendon) interspersed with Tokarczuk’s own idiosyncratic first-person musings.

Taken all together, Flights has the quality of a dream, in both the best and most maddening sense; you almost feel as if you have to bend your brain sideways to follow its trail of “moments, crumbs, fleeting configurations.” But when her prose lifts off, it’s magical: electrifying, strange, and sensationally alive. A-