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Witty, Imaginative, Risky And Relentless — 'Flights' Soars

Aug 20, 2018
Originally published on August 23, 2018 8:56 am
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Earlier this year the Man Booker International Prize, given for the best book of the year translated into English, was given to "Flights," a work of fiction by the Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk. "Flights" is now being published in America by Riverhead Books, and our critic-at-large John Powers says it's a revelation.

JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: During the Cold War, Eastern European writers were a very big deal in the West. Not only were they good, their careers came with a compelling backstory. They were political dissidents whose work mattered. But with the fall of the Berlin Wall, the bottom seemed to fall out of the market for writers from the other Europe as a series edited by Philip Roth once dubbed them. Stripped of the peculiar glamour of oppression, they were no longer sexy. But they were still good. And over the decades, Eastern Europe has continued to turn out writers whose work possesses an existential depth and an inventiveness that can make English language fiction look flimsy.

A striking example of this is Olga Tokarczuk, a 56-year-old literary star in her native Poland who frankly I'd never even heard of until a few months ago when her book "Flights" won the Man Booker International Prize. About a quarter of a way through this book, just out in America, I realized that I'd been overlooking a major international writer. Superbly translated by Jennifer Croft, "Flights" is a witty, imaginative, hard-to-classify work that is in the broadest sense about travel.

Told by a female narrator who's clearly a heightened version of the globetrotting Tokarczuk, the book is positively exploding with stuff - maps and drawings, personal remembrances, riffs on airports, encounters with fellow tourists, visits to museums filled with simulacra of the human form, not to mention revelatory snippets of history like the tale of the burial of Chopin's heart or the horrifying saga of Angelo Soliman, a highly educated black-skinned African - he was Mozart's friend - whose corpse the holy Roman emperor had stuffed, dressed in a grass skirt and displayed as a specimen of the native.

Interwoven with this nonfiction material are a series of made-up stories that really grab you. In one we follow a desperate Polish man whose wife and child have somehow vanished from the small Croatian island where they're vacationing. In another, a woman flies from her New Zealand home to her native Poland to perform a mysterious mission for the first man she ever loved.

Near the book's center - not accidentally, I think - Tokarczuk tells the story of Anushka, a woman who lives in a soul-crushing high-rise with a sick son and a husband who's changed for the worse. One day, she heads out to the store and simply doesn't return home. She begins aimlessly walking the freezing streets, hopping on buses, riding the subway. In the process, she finds herself drawn to a shrouded homeless woman who's constantly and angrily muttering something. Anushka wants to know what she's saying. We find out, and it's worth the wait.

Now, critics have compared "Flights" to the work of such novelists as W.G. Sebald and Laszlo Krasznahorkai, two of contemporary fiction's most demanding idols. Yet don't let that scare you. Broken into short, highly readable sections, "Flights" is far more sheerly enjoyable than either of those guys. In fact, in its pleasurable blend of reality, fiction and philosophizing, her book reminds me more of Milan Kundera's "The Book Of Laughter And Forgetting" and "The Unbearable Lightness of Being" albeit with one big difference.

Tokarczuk's sly subversion of our gender-based ideas of mobility - you know, men go on odysseys while women stay at home like Penelope - is the exact opposite of his trademark misogyny. But like Kundera, Tokarczuk knows how to braid together the personal and the political. Back in Poland, she's controversial for opposing the current government's aggressively nationalist populism. And like Kundera, she's interested in the soul.

"Flights" is a travel book not about individual travels but about the nature of travel itself, what it means to leave here and go there psychologically, culturally, metaphysically, even physically. She's obsessed with the fragile bodies that carry us on our journey from life to death. Early in "Flights," Tokarczuk tells us that as a girl she would stand on the banks of the Oder River and watch it flow by.

Looking at its powerful current, she came to the life-changing realization that in spite of the risks involved, a thing in motion will always be better than a thing at rest, and change will always be a nobler thing than permanence. In this risky, restlessly mercurial book, she's found a way of turning that philosophy into writing that doesn't just take flight but soars.

GROSS: John Powers writes about film and TV for Vogue and vogue.com. He reviewed "Flights" by Olga Tokarczuk. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we take a ground-level look at America's opioid crisis. Our guest will be Beth Macy. She spent years speaking with dealers, users, doctors, cops and judges in central Appalachia, which she calls the birthplace of the modern opioid epidemic. She also spoke with parents who lost children to overdoses and became activists in the fight for better treatment. Macy is the author of the new book "Dopesick." I hope you'll join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer is Roberta Shorrock. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Therese Madden directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross.

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