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The trick is to keep moving… #WITmonth #OlgaTokarczuk @jenniferlcroft

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Flights by Olga Tokarczuk
Translated by Jennifer Croft

I can’t think of a better book to start off Women in Translation month!

Author Olga Tokarczuk and translator Jennifer Croft won the Man Booker International Prize this year with “Flights”, and although I tend to avoid most book prize winners like the plague, this one was shouting out to me to be read. Having spent several stimulating days in its company, I can say that in many ways it’s a hard book to review because it’s a hard book to define. Is it a diary? A novel? A collection of interlinking philosophical musings? Short stories? A series of travelogues? An extended meditation on the human need to make journeys? A study of the study of human anatomy and the art of preservation? All of these things and none of these things? It’s certainly dark and provocative in places, yet entirely intriguing and inspirational, and full of the most beautiful writing (elegantly rendered into gorgeous English by Croft).

It is widely known, after all, that real life takes place in movement.

In simple terms, “Flights” is a book about travel. In a series of pieces of varying length, Tokarczuk’s narrator ranges through time and location to explore human beings and their constant inability to settle (a syndrome from which the narrator also suffers). These individual his/herstories range far and wide, taking in such disparate tales as the last journey of Chopin’s heart, a missing wife and child on a Croatian island, a variety of Cabinets of Curiosities, the morals of preserving a human being’s body against their will, tales from a harem and the last cruise of an ageing professor. This latter thread, towards the end of the book, has some of the most beautiful yet achingly sad writing where Tokarczuk describes with stunning and chilling imagery the effects of a stroke, drawing on the motif of water and its destructive power against paper which she uses throughout the book. As my Dad suffered from several of these, it touched a nerve.

The author – by Tomasz Leśniowski [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons

However, we always return to the framing narrative which deals directly with movement itself, travel psychology, the growth of airports, encounters with strangers en route and so much more. There are recurring themes – Moby Dick and whales, embalming and the preservation of the body, the endless questing nature of humans, the slippery nature of our perceptions of reality – all stitched together into a rich and compelling narrative.

… the Earth is round, let us not be too attached, then, to directions.

And the overarching theme is always movement, travel, flight – the latter word with a double meaning, as we are often in flight, running during our lives, either to or from people or places. “Flights” taps into the human spirit, recognising that we are restless, constantly searching beings, always moving on from what we already have. As a species we are unable to keep still, constantly driven to explore – and it could be argued that that is why we’re in the mess we are nowadays. A very pertinent and relevant short section of the book details carrier bags travelling the world as if they were some strange new species, which was funny and tragic at the same time.

We are the individual nerve impulses of the world, fractions of an instant, barely that part of it that permits the change from plus to minus, or maybe the other way around, and keeps everything in constant flux.

Tokarczuk is a Polish author and activist who trained as a psychologist (and I think this shows in the depth of her work); she’s courted controversy over the years by expressing views which have been unpopular with some patriots from her country. She’s won numerous awards for her writing in a variety of countries, and certainly if “Flights” is anything to go by, she’s an author to explore further. Croft seems to be her ideal translator (I love it when there’s a meeting of minds between the author and the person who renders their work in another language) and apparently she’s translating another of Tokarczuk’s works, which is very exciting for us Anglophones.

The translator, by Norapushkin [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons

There is always the risk when writing a work as audacious and ambitious as this (and Perec’s “Life: A User’s Manual” springs to mind) that the whole will not cohere and will simply be a collection of parts. Tokarczuk acknowledges the difficulty of writing early on in the book:

Anyone who has ever tried to write a novel knows what an arduous task it is, undoubtedly one of the worst ways of occupying oneself. You have to remain within yourself all the time, in solitary confinement. It’s a controlled psychosis, an obsessive paranoia manacled to work, completely lacking in the feather pens and bustles and Venetian masks we would ordinarily associate with it, clothed instead in a butcher’s apron and rubber boots, eviscerating knife in hand. You can only barely see from that writerly cellar the feet of passersby, hear the rapping of their heels. Every so often someone stops and bends down and glances in through the window, and then you get a glimpse of a human face, maybe even exchange a few words. But ultimately the mind is so occupied with its own act, a play staged by the self for the self in a hasty, makeshift cabinet of curiosities peopled by author and character, narrator and reader, the person describing and the person being described, that feet, shoes, heels, and faces become, sooner or later, mere components of that act.

However, I think she succeeds brilliantly with “Flights”, which is an extraordinary work, a real tour de force with soaring prose and unforgettable stories. Tokarczuk weaves a wonderful tapestry of travellers’ tales whilst all the while digging down into the human psyche to see what it is that motivates us and what it means to be human. Reading “Flights” is like taking a wide-ranging and thought-provoking journey. It’s a book that certainly deserves slow and close reading, and then reading again to truly appreciate its complex and multi-layered narrative; and it’s most definitely deserving of the praise and prizes it’s received. A wonderful start to #WIT month.

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Plans? What plans?? #WITmonth

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It’s no great secret that reading plans and I don’t get on that well together. More often than not if I make a schedule, join a challenge or even just try to think a few books ahead to what I’ll be reading next it all tends to go straight out of the window while I follow some random reading whim. However! August is Women in Translation month and I *do* always try to join in with that one – particularly as I read a lot of translated work and a lot of women’s writing!

So here is a little pile of possibles off the TBR which may attract my attention during this month. You’ll see one book which ticks the box for another August event – All Virago, All August, a little challenge by the members of the LibraryThing Virago Modern Classics group. This takes in Viragos, other books by Virago authors and Persephones too, and although I don’t commit to reading only those for the month I do try to enjoy at least one title. And the Triolet counts for WIT too so that would be ideal. Although a re-read of the Colette is very tempting. And I love Tsvetaeva at the moment so her diaries would be fab. And the others sound great too…

However, this is the book I’m currently reading and loving, and so as it will be the first book I finish and review in August, it will also definitely be my first WIT book!

Unfortunately, there are other volumes vying for my attention… As I was having a rummage for WIT titles I came across a few others which caught my eye:

The Spark, of course, would tie in with HeavenAli’s Reading Muriel celebration. The Baudelaire is Baudelaire and therefore needs no explanation. And the Malcolm Bradbury was mentioned on the From First Page to Last blog and I recalled I had a copy which I have now found! It’s set in a university and since I find universities and academics endlessly fascinating (probably because I never went to one…) it sounds like I really might enjoy it.

And then there are the review books lurking:

And don’t they look pretty and appealing, and I wish I could read them all in one go… Fortunately, I shall be doing some train travelling this month which may mean that I can get through a few of these titles while on the road (or the rails…). Come to think of it, Catherine the Great’s letters would count for WIT month as well, wouldn’t they??? 😀

So lots of choices again, alas. Are you planning any Women in Translation books this month, or any Viragos? Are you a planner or do you just follow your reading whims? Do tell! 🙂

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