Saturday, August 17, 2019

WITMonth Day 17 | Flights by Olga Tokarczuk | Review

I waited a long time to read Flights. Despite having had multiple translations of her books into English prior to Flights, this was the book that brought Olga Tokarczuk to my sphere of awareness. Everyone seemed to be reading Flights last year; it was a WITMonth hit, people were praising Tokarczuk and translator Jennifer Croft from all directions, and ultimately the book went on to win the 2018 Man Booker International Prize (and was shortlisted for both the Warwick Prize for Women in Translation and the National Book Award for Translated Literature). Flights has been... everywhere.

I waited a long time to read Flights. Not because I thought I wouldn't like it (though I won't pretend there wasn't some of my usual concern that I'd end up disappointed by a book that everyone else seems to have loved!). Not because I didn't want to read it (I very much did). And not because I couldn't get my hands on it (I lovingly passed my fingers over its cover when I was in London this past November). No, I waited a long time because the moment I saw this bright yellow hardcover for the US edition, I knew I wanted this version. I wanted a spine that would crackle under my fingers. I wanted a bright, bold cover. Forgive me, but the UK Fitzcarraldo blue just really does not do it for me.

And so I waited. I waited to begin my travels. I waited as I traveled through Fitzcarraldo-friendly lands. I waited as I arrived in the US and was exiled to the bookstore-deprived suburbs of Central New Jersey. (I mean... "was happily spending time with my family". *cough*) I waited as I placed online orders for several other books. I waited until I walked into a bookstore that had Flights on full display, and then I hugged the gorgeous hardcover to my chest. Flights boarded my flight home, carefully tucked into my backpack between my laptop and extra scarf. (And six other books. Let's not get into it...)

I began reading Flights on my last flight home. Three months of flying all across the world (16 flights in total...), traveling to new countries and continents, seeing new sights, meeting new people, exploring new experiences. At first, the book felt like it would be a slow burn - the shifts in style, narration, and literal stories kept throwing me off. How much of Flights was a novel? How much was short stories? How much was autobiography? The book seemed to progress with its own unique rhythm, sometimes working for me, sometimes less. I read slowly, steadily - first on my flight, then through my jetlag, and then bits and pieces every night before bed.

And then I began to read voraciously. Somewhere around the halfway mark, I felt something shift inside me; I suddenly felt like the book was pulsing with life, vibrating in my hands. I began to feel how the stories fit together. It suddenly clicked.

One story lingers, that of the (implied) New Zealand scientist who heads back to Poland to visit a dying friend. I kept feeling that the story was written for me, having just come back from my own travels throughout New Zealand and contemplating all sorts of bigger life questions (though obviously not as big as those in the story, for those who have read it). The story was one that suddenly had an additional dimension by virtue of the fact that I had waited - could the story have meant nearly as much to me before having traveled throughout New Zealand? (No.) Pieces of it seemed to fit perfectly into the tapestry of my jumbled emotional puzzle.

I ultimately loved Flights. I loved how the experimental, "weird" side ultimately ends up paying off. I loved how the book feels like it's growing as you're reading it. I loved the clarity of the writing (and translation!). I loved its unique voice, at once intimate and technical. I loved how it was quite unlike any of the other books I had read recently. I loved how it managed to be exactly what I needed at exactly the right time.

I waited just long enough to read Flights.

1 comment:

  1. I think for anyone with a nomadic lifestyle it really does click - I too loved it and could relate to it, although I initially thought it was non-fiction... I've done that before! It works, of course, far better as fiction.


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