This strange, wonderful and ultimately frustrating book from 2018 Man Booker International Prize winner Olga Tokarczuk has got me thinking about the importance of form. First published in 2007 in Polish, and only translated into English last year (and beautifully translated at that, by Jennifer Croft) the book is filled with memorable lines and arresting and original images. Early in the book comes this:
Anyone who has ever tried to write a novel knows what an arduous task it is, undoubtedly one of the worst ways of occupying yourself. You have to remain within yourself all the time, ins solitary confinement. It’s a controlled psychosis, an obsessive paranoia manacled to work…..You can barely see from that writerly cellar the feet of passers-by, hear the rapping of their heels. .
All of us who have battled our way through writing a novel will identify wholeheartedly with that.
But in the end my own response to Flights was one of bafflement. Is it a memoir? Or travel writing? Is it historical fiction or a contemporary novel? It is all of these, and that is perhaps a bit too much. That the author plays with form is daring and admirable, but in order to work as a rewarding read, I think it needed to tell a story or, at least, to have an effect that was in the end complete, even if unsettling. The central story is that of a man called Kunicki whose wife and child mysteriously disappear on a small Croatian island where the family is on holiday. The story is brilliantly told, with just enough withheld so that you as a reader are as mystified and concerned about their disappearance as Kunicki himself. This story is interrupted by other stories, and so we as readers look for the patterns, the connections, only to find they are not really there. And when we finally return to Kunicki there is no resolution. Lack of resolution should not matter, but given all the other distractions of the book, I felt we had earned a bit of resolution this time around.
It is, of course, absolutely fine to play with form. Think of George Saunders’ astonishing Lincoln in the Bardo, half-novel, half-play and half something else altogether (yes, it is at least one-and-a-half books in its emotional impact). The thing is, George gives you a story and the story – or stories – is what binds us together. Flights gets us thinking, but I’m not sure it gets us understanding.