book review

Trying to see the big picture

There’s a certain kind of a novel that seeds itself with self-description — with phrases that ostensibly describe an element of character or plot but also describe the text itself. The Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk’s “Flights,” winner of the 2018 Man Booker International Prize, is exactly that kind of self-reflexive book.

A generically slippery work that combines short stories with essays with images of historical maps, “Flights” is always intelligent and often surprising, especially in its tonal shifts and narrative restlessness. (Among the novel’s many condensed mini-sagas: the story of Ludwika Chopin, who smuggles the chemically preserved heart of her recently deceased brother, the famous composer, back home to Poland, and a mini-biography of Philip Verheyen, the Flemish anatomist who discovered the Achilles tendon.)


But “Flights”’ most striking feature is the rigor with which it thinks about itself while seeming to think about other topics. A concrete example: At one point, the narrator visits the Josephinum, a museum in Vienna that houses “a collection of anatomical wax figures.” While there, the narrator sees a model of the human circulatory system and, in Jennifer Croft’s clear, lively translation, remarks, “Most of the blood vessels rest on the muscles, but some of them are shown as a kind of aerial grid; only here can you see the fractal wonder of those red threads.”

“Flights” is itself a fractal wonder. At the granular level, it exhibits fragmentation, composed as it is of 116 short vignettes — some as brief as a sentence, some as long as 30 pages; some presenting essayistic musings on travel and time (two major themes) in the style of J.M. Coetzee, others mining European history for narrative purposes. Yet looked at from afar, these fragments, like the circulatory system, begin to form “a kind of aerial grid,” a networked system of connections and echoes. (Indeed the book’s final image is of a writer boarding a plane.) From the Chopin and Verheyen storylines, for instance, a thematic thread emerges: an interest in, even obsession with, anatomical specimens and renderings. Many parts, all participating in, and making present, the whole: a fractal wonder, indeed.


In fact, a relatively full description of “Flights” could be constructed just from such moments of self-reflexivity, moments where the text considers itself while considering other things. The narrator claims, for example, that “a thing in motion will always be better than a thing at rest” — a crisp summary of the ethos of a book that gets jumpy if it stays with a character or setting (Poland, Croatia, Austria, New Zealand) too long. Later, a professor of classics lectures on contuition — “a variety of insight that spontaneously reveals the presence of some larger-than-human strength, some unity above heterogeneity.” That’s exactly the type of insight that a reader of “Flights” hopes for: a momentary glimpse of the order that exists above or below or through the novel’s fragments.

To be clear, the traditional pleasures of fiction aren’t absent here. Tokarczuk can be a nimble plotter when she wants to be. Take the section on the anatomist Philip Verheyen, for instance, which muses on anatomy and the power and danger of naming (another regular concern) but also introduces real psychological and dramatic stakes: Verheyn, an amputee, suffers pain in his phantom limb and fears he’s going mad.

And Tokarczuk’s characters, though briefly treated, are also vital, struck to life quickly and memorably. There’s the narrator — a witty, restlessly curious middle-aged woman whose physical and imaginative flights provide the book’s structure: “I am the anti-Antaeus. My energy derives from movement — from the shuddering of buses, the rumble of planes.” There’s Kunicki, a man whose wife and child inexplicably disappear while on vacation on a Croatian island only to just as inexplicably reappear later in the text. And there’s Josefine Soliman, a real historical figure who writes to Emperor Francis I of Austria, begging that her father, a former courtier now “chemically treated and stuffed, and exhibited to human curiosity” in the emperor’s Cabinet of Natural Curiosities, be given a proper Christian burial.


Josefine, that letter-writing daughter advocate, is interesting on her own terms. Yet it’s when we recognize how her story resonates with other moments in the text — her name echoes the Josephinum museum that the narrator visits in Vienna; her father’s fate links up with the many other preserved bodies and cabinets of curiosities we encounter throughout — that we recognize Tokarczuk’s imaginative power. Josefine is just one point in the constellation that is the novel.

Again, the text itself describes this constellating effect best. At one point, a psychologist interested in travel claims that her field’s “foundational idea . . . is constellationality.” Flights” is constellational — in its style, in its structure, in its thinking. And, as Tokarczuk archly puts it, “Constellation, not sequencing, carries truth.”


By Olga Tokarczuk


Translated from the Polish by Jennifer Croft

Riverhead, 416 pp., $26

Anthony Domestico is an assistant professor of literature at Purchase College, SUNY, and the author of “Poetry and Theology in the Modernist Period.’’