Reviews, Writing musings

Flights, by Olga Tokarczuk, and why form matters



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.



6 Comments on “Flights, by Olga Tokarczuk, and why form matters

  1. Loving this blog, Sean – interesting review of this book by James Wood in the latest New Yorker by the way. He feels pretty much the same as you but pinpoints some aspects of the book, like Polishness, and argues with its basic idea.

    1. Thanks, Izzy. Just read James Wood’s review in the New Yorker. I thought my review was a bit late off the mark, so good to see the New Yorker has only just got to it! Yes, I think he nails both the book’s strengths and weaknesses very well.

  2. Yeah, the lack of resolution with Kunicki tells me Tokarczuk is the not up to the task. Extremely disappointed, after thinking she was. It leaves the whole book unsewn, as if her meanderings were , although beautiful with imagery and recurring tropes, no more than the efforts of a precocious child that can’t “bring it home,” literally and figuratively.

  3. As with an enigmatic painting we sometimes need our own experience to complete the picture, which may vary from observer to observer. I see Kunicki as the insecure child being mothered by his wife at the department store (Poor suffering child, I need to relieve him from his misery) then returning to the apartment to explain all. She calmly moves on as if to leave a child free to develop. He moves as far as physically possible just as his mind has moved from utter despair to some kind of albeit uncomfortable peace. Whether or not something clandestine has happened is neither here nor there but all indications point to the fact that Kunicki is right in his suspicions but can’t put the pieces together well enough to complete the picture satisfactorily.

    1. Thanks, Ray, for your thought-provoking comment. One of the benefits of the book is that it allows the reader to construe each characters’ motivations and to speculate on what happened before, after and around the events in the multiple stories.

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