Flights is the 2018 Man Booker International Prize winner. The format of the text could be a source of great debate – a novel? A collection of short stories? Or a mix of the two? Perhaps the author, Olga Tokarczuk, describes it best when she refers to it with a wonderous phrase, ‘a constellation novel’, saying that much like how the stars were grouped and related by the ancients, she wants the reader to form their own meaning to the stories.
In spite of its difficulty to define, Flights is certainly interesting. Filled with psychological conundrums, mini-essays and some conventional narratives, the novel drifts between small, short anecdotes and musings to slightly larger and more contextual accounts. In these instances, Torkarczuk tends to apply a level of fascinating historical information to immerse the reader. In terms of plot, Flights doesn’t have a continuous tale, it’s highly fragmented with the focal point changing every tens of pages (if not in just a few), along with its tenses and its grammatical person, displaying a diverse compendium of literary work.
The term ‘variety’ is perhaps the most fitting for Flights, a novel which traverses centuries and features both real historical figures and fictionalised. The text is interlaced with images, specifically maps, which slot in, often mid-sentence, with no legends or supplementary information to suggest validity. This can produce a source of stimulation for the reader. Not only are the detailed illustrations pleasing to the eye, they offer a question to digest: why are they there? It’s not until roughly halfway through the book that the reader is given a possible answer when a line in the text hints to their meaning.
Despite creating situations which build tension and pose questions, Torkarczuk chooses to leave these short sections largely unresolved, often not returning to the narratives. While these cliff-hanger-like instances may aggravate readers not sated without a conclusion, they allow the mind to ponder and speculate, with Torkarczuk quick to engross the reader in a further tale to dispel any hard feelings.
Reading Flights is to be confronted by the question: what is the human body — imbued with personality and soul? Or just a physical object?
Another important aspect of Flights is Torkarczuk’s intention to shine a light on traveller culture, how modern airports are now hubs — centres for travel and entertainment, more than just a means of passage. Her decision to contrast these contemporary observations with historical accounts, in which travel was a more labour-intensive and less accessible option, puts prominence on how attitudes have changed in the modern day.
What is the effect of the books format on the experience of reading it?
Why do you think Tokarczuk chose to focus on the topics of travel and human anatomy? Do you think she creates a link between the two?
Unusual for the precedence set by the rest of the book, Tokarczuk returns to the topic of Angelo Soliman throughout, a real-life figure whose unfortunate treatment after death is the premise of her writing. Why do you think Tokarczuk chose to include and return to this tale in particular? What attitudes does this shine a light on? Why did she choose to withhold the information that the mummy was destroyed in a fire in the 1800s?
What effect does the cliff-hanger-like nature of Tokarczuk’s selections have?
How does philosophy play a part in Tokarczuk’s writing?
Some sections of the novel are quiet graphic — did you find any of the writing too gruesome and if so, did this enhance or take away from your experience?
It is worth noting that a continuous plot is absent in Flights as its structure is similar to that of a short story collection. Page 213 hints to the meaning behind the maps included in the book, ‘Nothing cures melancholy like looking at maps’.
The final short story of Flights, entitled ‘Boarding’, focuses on the nameless narrator as she begins to jot down her observations at an airport, comparing it with the routine of her other travels. She concludes her account with the flight attendants helping the passengers aboard the plane, comparing them to angels and the notion of flying to that of rebirth.