Note: This review has some spoilers…
Olga Tokarczuk does not need an introduction. Well, she is from Poland, Nobel Literature Prize 2018. That’s it. She has won several literature prices before. I understand why. She writes as if she were rolling over sentences in a beautiful song and each one of those sentences are attached to one another in perfection. But it was not this what left me with an open mouth. After several days and weeks of finishing ‘Flights’ my head is still spinning trying to guess how was she capable of put such simple stories, that could happen to anyone, in paper. Some of us have lived those stories, or at least one of the stories (exploration of the human body, migration, travel, languages, romance, life and death), but none of us would have been capable of telling them in such a sublime way.
Of all the chapters in this book, my favourites are the ones focused on human behaviour. They point at why do we do what we do and why we act sometimes in such unpredictable and unthinkable ways, moved by strong emotions, souvenirs and expectations.
- Let’s look at ‘The World in Your Head’. The description of herself is so complete and sincere that it doesn’t even need a book to include it. You can take it in your hands as a whole text and turn it over, and turn her over, the author, and the biography, from upside down. Her physical, psychological and professional features, the descriptions of her family and their times being nomads, everything cut and put in little pieces in front of the reader, to eat it as sweet little pieces of a chocolate cake. I did not know Poland, but I know it a little bit now after reading her biography, and I know her a bit too, and even her insights I know them as well. I like the simpleness in which she approaches her own geniality.
- Another one of the stories, all of them exceptional, that got my attention as ‘Kuniki’ -because of the emotional tear that a separation can cause-, ‘The Flights’ -because it teach us about the very sad life of a muscovite mother that scapes her husband and handicap kid in an indifferent city towards the suffering souls and ‘God’s Zone’ -because it describes what is to walk over a balancing rope between crime and personal ethics. In ‘Kuniki, a father looks for his wife and toddler who got lost after making a stop in a lonely route to stretch their legs and pee. A ferry was booked later to go back home. They vanished. The father looks for a friend to help him and after the Police. The natives comment ‘This is such a small island’, implying that nobody can get lost there. Everybody knows each other, everybody and everything is on plain view, exposed, with no secrets. And yet, his wife and son disappeared.
- And the best, short but convincing, forceful and overwhelming ‘The Tongue is the Strongest Muscle’- because it reflects masterfully about English native speakers. Tokarczuk sees it as a course, one that does not allow to hide words, thoughts and comments under a second language. The sentences, actions and expressions will always be guessed, deduced, deciphered, in their own countries and in any place of the world in which they dare to travel. Even worse, the others will hide, under different types of syllables and words, leaving them without direction, without really understanding the duality of the mind, of the brain, of the human being, of the cultural being that we are all.
One thing that gave me the chills was Olga Tokarczuk obsession with the human physiology, of living and dead. In various of her stories she reports crimes or natural deaths, but describing the criminal and physiological aspects to the detail. Her physiological diagnosis are alive in all the book, making a reverence to her own professional career.
I immerse myself in the stories of bodies and descriptions. The author does not refer in her writing to the exposition ‘Bodies’ but it was my choice to make that connexion, because she detailed it in some of her stories, as if she found it along in different parts of the world, in different times of her life. As a physiologist, she examines, profoundly, the cut of the muscles, the places in which the internal and external organs are found, and the beginning and end of that body that has been kept intact after long past its death. The fact that she could have been attracted to what I personally think is a living horror astonishes me. Maybe it was because I didn’t see it with scientific eyes, but with the eyes of a human rights lawyer. I asked myself how could somebody have willingly offered her body to this carnage -this was stated at the entrance, that people have willingly offered their bodies to science- but I kept asking myself, what was the motive to do such a thing?
Somebody in Australia asked the same question, for when ‘Bodies’ arrived in Sydney in November 2018, several human rights activists argued that they were the bodies of executed prisoners in China.
I would not know, maybe Olga Tockarczuk either. I think she wouldn’t ask herself this question, after all, her characters are used to walk in the blurred limits between ethics, a rational behaviour and crime. This is what make this book more of anti-heroes than heroes, however very human.
This book is a mandatory reading for literature lovers.