What I read this month – Jan 2020

Usually I try to post a blog near the beginning of the month with a look at what I’m reading or planning to read over the month. It’s been an unusual month, however, in that post-Christmas and winding up space, with plenty of projects on the go and marking to be done. So here we are, Burns Night (or St Dwynwyn’s Day, as some of the Welsh luvvies have it… plus Chinese New Year, so gung hay fat choy for your Year of the Rat), and I just finished Olga Tokarczuk’s remarkable book Flights, so I thought I’d briefly write about it here.

cover image of Olga Tokarczuk's Flights Savvy readers (there must be one or two of you out there) will recall that I put this on my to-read list for October, conveniently timed after her Nobel Prize win. We happened to be going to the bookshop anyway so the kids could spend their Granny-gifted book tokens, and there it was. The news so fresh, it didn’t yet have a sticker which the clever Fitzcarraldo people have since added to it – a transparent sticker identifying her Nobel win. It’s a shame, because the gorgeous simplicity of the cover is what drove me to Tokarczuk in the first place, when I spotted Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead last year. This edition did have a sticker on it helpfully telling me it won the Man Booker International Prize for 2018, but I pulled it off and stuck it on an inside page. Why let the prizes that support book sales get in the way of aesthetics?

I did not, however, get to it then. Instead, it’s been my bedside table companion through most of January. And it’s been productive – the general motif of flight and human motion helped me with some other writing I’ve been doing this week, whilst the final narrative we get in the book has me kicking myself for not becoming an expert on ancient Greece instead of contemporary media engagement with Muslims… I doubt anyone will invite me to give lectures on an island-hopping cruise through the Dodecanese when I’m retired, and all I can do now is feel bad about my decisions.

I say “narrative”, and it is really quite a collection. A curated collection, as we have an ambiguous narrator’s voice bringing it all together. Is it meant to be Tokarczuk? Well, literary novelists rarely make it easy for you, and the absolute spread of countries and travels this “I” person manages across the book’s pages would be pretty herculean, especially if you’re managing it on the income of an emerging writer. But what do I know about these things?

The thing is, the curated quality of the “frame story” (such as it is – not a frame story so much as an interspersed set of reflections, an indulgent showing off of “I was reading in a book that…” or “When I was in X and talked with a fascinating stranger….”) suits one of the two big themes of the book: not flight or motion, but the human body. Museums, cabinets of curiosities, and the processes and personalities of preserving body parts take up a large chunk of this book. As a not squeamish person, I would say there’s nothing here to trouble the squeamish, but then a squeamish person might disagree, encountering these descriptions more vividly than I do.

If there’s a thesis behind this all, and Tokarczuk is both clever and much ballyhooed as a literary novelist, so we should assume there is one, it was not quite clear to me. The attention to the fixity of the body doesn’t fit all that well with the idea of flight and departure or that of humans in motion, except maybe as a matter of contrast. But the contrast is not so diametrical as to make it a natural. I don’t find them thrown into much conversation here.

This all makes it sound like I didn’t like the book. That’s not the case – I did like it. Parts of it I loved. When she’s on, with a really fluid narrative, she’s right on, and her writing rather favours these small moments. Though Drive Your Plow was more satisfying as a sustained novel, there is writing in here that surpasses anything in the other book. The long section in the middle, which bears the name “Flights” and so telegraphs its connection to the book’s overall purpose, tells the story of Annushka, a Muscovite mother, wife, and daughter-in-law who has a Joycean moment of epiphany, which builds somewhat slowly but leads her to a flight which is dramatic yet utterly believable. It was incredibly moving (literally: much of it takes place on the Moscow metro in winter).Mayakovskaya Metro station in Moscow, with arches and a train blurred as it rushes past

Tokarczuk also brings us a compelling story of Kunicki, whose wife and young son go missing during a holiday on a Croatian island. We meet Kunicki early and are drawn into his problem, but where so many stories Tokarczuk writes are presented and then abandoned, she doesn’t abandon Kunicki completely, and his mystery is, if not solved, then elaborated upon towards the book’s conclusion. I really enjoyed it.

This flight from story to story, from period to period and geography to geography, makes this story very (wait for it!) postmodern. It’s hard to call it a novel: it’s like a short story collection with talky bits in between. It is intensely focused on whatever interests Tokarczuk, and I trust her in the task because she is a good writer providing interesting things, but it’s not everyone’s thing. If you ask my wife, I was frowning a lot whilst reading it, which again is not a good sales pitch. But I’m not bothered by complex things, though I will be critical where it’s due. Early, she gives a good clue as to the voice that’s developing, and if you’re going to roll your eyes and curse, then it’s a good tip for you to close the book and find something else:

It turned out it was true what some people said about psychology being a degree you choose not because of the job you want, or out of curiosity or a vocation to help others, but rather for another very simple reason. I think all of us had some sort of deeply hidden defect, although we no doubt all gave the impression of intelligent, healthy young people – the defect was masked, skilfully camouflaged during our entrance exams. …

What we learned at university was that we are made up of defences, of shields and armour, that we are cities whose architecture essentially comes down to walls, ramparts, strongholds: bunker states.

Every test, questionnaire, and study we also conducted on each other, so that by the time we got through our third year, I had a name for what was wrong with me; it was like discovering my own secret name, the name that summons one to an initiation.

If you are invited in, you’ll like what you find.

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