Whatever you do, don’t start reading Olga Tokarczuk’s “Flights” expecting to encounter a conventional novel – because you won’t. It is a fragmented, meandering creation with dozens of vignette’s nestling against each other, sometimes in a logical progression – but mostly not. Some of these are as long as twelve or more pages, the majority not; in some instances even a paragraph might be enough.
Neither is there a coherent theme, a plot, a constant set of characters. There isn’t really a beginning, middle or end either. The closest we come to consistency is the narrator’s voice (not always there, you understand) and one or two themes – such as travel, and the preservation, study and display of human anatomy – which weave their way through the book.
Based on all this, you might be forgiven for not regarding “Flights” as a novel at all – and in many respects it isn’t. Yet it also isn’t a collection of short stories, and whilst there are some illustrations of antique maps throughout the book (which fit with the theme of ‘flight’), there isn’t much reported speech in the book either. Given our need to provide written things will labels, I suppose ‘novel’ is the only option open – but it’s a misnomer.
What “Flights” also isn’t is badly written. Tokarczuk can be captivating, and my translation (by Jennifer Croft) reads well. Inevitably there are one or two words that jar here and there, but I daresay that’s one of the challenges translators face.
Worth a read? I think so – but be prepared for what you’re letting yourself in for.