Flights by Olga Tokarczuk: ‘enchanting meditation on metamorphosis and connection’
The white whale of the book, on the Man Booker International prize shortlist, is the human body itself, pursued through a series of narratives
Olga Tokarczuk. Photograph: Martin J Kraft
Early on in Olga Tokarczuk’s beguilingly experimental Flights, the narrator casually mentions that one of her favourite books is Moby-Dick. This hint, along with the many references to whales throughout the book’s diffuse sections, suggests the approach of a work that shows several similarities to Melville’s classic: a quirky, open-hearted charm, a species of relentless curiosity that borders on obsession, and an essayistic verve that skilfully guides the reader through occasionally arcane corners of knowledge. Our narrator is a wanderer who is intimately attuned to the rhythms of modern travel, with its airport ennui and fleeting conversations; the white whale of the book is the human body itself, pursued through a series of narratives – some fictional and some, like the bizarre story of the posthumous journey of Chopin’s heart, based on historical events – that circle around the amputation of limbs, the embalming of corpses, and the mysterious border between life and death. These journeys and fragments, in Jennifer Croft’s deft translation, accumulate into an enchanting meditation on metamorphosis and connection.