Some books just make their way into your life. For me, Flights by Olga Tokarczuk was one of them. The book was an impulsive buy from Amazon during the peak of COVID-19 lockdown. I had come across an article on Lonely Planet that listed ‘Books to get you dreaming of European travel‘. That was the hook. Thanks to that article, I ended up purchasing Flights and 6 other books. Let’s just say it was an impulsive and an expensive buy!
Flights is a complicated book. I am unable to find a footing from where I can begin the review. Let me take care of the supplementary details and hopefully a line of thought will open in the process. When I first held the book in my hand, the vivid blue yet plain cover threw me off and I noticed – The Man Booker International Prize 2018. I knew then, what lay ahead of me was a mountainous task. Olga Tokarczuk is one of Poland’s best and most beloved authors. However, it is the translation by Jennifer Croft that helped Flights cinch the coveted Booker title.
Did I love it?
Not at all.
Did I hate it?
I am indifferent to the book. Spending a few hours everyday for 24 days in my life seems like a big waste when at the end I drew nothing from it. At 400-pages Flights was too much for me to handle. The disjointed and scatty writing made it difficult to slip into the narrative and as hard as I tried, I never found the rhythm of the book. It was haphazard and monotonous. I am always a little cautious of the Man Booker prize winners because I feel they tend to pack too much and are almost all the time borderline pretentious – there, this is exactly how I felt about Flights!
Anatomy was the major theme throughout the book, and it was so exhausting. I am not a biology student so after a point all the dissection and the formaldehyde was annoying and frankly speaking could have been avoided. I am still trying to figure out the connection between anatomy and travel. Talking about travel, Lonely Planet got this bit right, travel IS the theme throughout the book and it is beautifully conveyed in Tocarzcuk’s description of the airports, hostels and even the miniature travel toiletries. While reading some sections, I could almost see the traveler in motion at a busy international airport, such was the description – vivid and real.
Written in the format of a collection of essays, random thoughts, overheard conversations, midnight musings and observations, the book conveys anything and everything relating to the world of travel and anatomy. Interesting facts are interspersed with fictional stories. The protagonist, a wayfarer who shows up every now and then, is a young girl drawn to the ugly and jarring. A lot of the short components (or essays) in the book are observations she has made about other passengers en-route to her destination. Some short stories are worth remembering – The series of letters that Josefine writes to the Emperor of Austria requesting her father’s body for completion of the last rites; Dr. Blau’s fetish for capturing photographs of young girls and being repelled by the body of a woman his own age; Filip Verheyen’s discovery of the Achilles tendon and subsequently the Phantom pain phenomenon. But you dare blink, and they are gone. Leaving in its wake a cart-load of philosophy.
As I finished the book, a feeling of dreadfulness crept over me – another internationally acclaimed novel that I just couldn’t connect with. Booker Prize winners will be the bane of my existence! (Milkman was another such example) As I did a Google search to validate my feelings about the book, I came across an article by Outlook India calling Flights a ‘delightful read’. I breathed a sigh of relief. Flights could be many things, but it cannot be slotted under the delightful category. A simple adjective reaffirms my belief on the guiding principle behind majority of the bestsellers and award-winning titles.
I keep the book back on my shelf and as I do so, I glance upon The Sympathizer (Pulitzer Fiction). I am rest assured in the knowledge that exceptional literary works will always shine a little brighter than the rest, at least on my bookshelf, if not anywhere else.