Flights, a novel about travel in the twenty-first century and human anatomy, is Olga Tokarczuk’s most ambitious to date. It interweaves travel narratives and reflections on travel with an in-depth exploration of the human body, broaching life, death, motion, and migration. From the seventeenth century, we have the story of the Dutch anatomist Philip Verheyen, who dissected and drew pictures of his own amputated leg. From the eighteenth century, we have the story of a North African-born slave turned Austrian courtier stuffed and put on display after his death. In the nineteenth century, we follow Chopin’s heart as it makes the covert journey from Paris to Warsaw. In the present we have the trials of a wife accompanying her much older husband as he teaches a course on a cruise ship in the Greek islands, and the harrowing story of a young husband whose wife and child mysteriously vanish on a holiday on a Croatian island. With her signature grace and insight, Olga Tokarczuk guides the reader beyond the surface layer of modernity and towards the core of the very nature of humankind.
Winner of the Man Booker International Prize, this novel from Tokarczuk (House of Day, House of Night) is an indisputable masterpiece of "controlled psychosis," as one of the characters phrases it. Written in a cacophony of voices, the book's themes accumulate not from plot, but rather associations and resonances. It begins in Croatia, where a tourist, Kunicki, is lazily smoking cigarettes beside his car in an island olive grove, waiting for his wife and son to return from a short walk. Except they don't, and Kunicki must frantically search for his lost family in a sun-drenched paradise, 10 kilometers in diameter. The novel then, after some number of pages and disjointed narratives, joins the peculiar anatomist Dr. Blau's journey to the seaside village home of a recently deceased rival. This prompts the retelling of the sad, true tale of Angelo Soliman, born in Nigeria, who had lived as a dignified and respected Viennese courtier, only to be mummified and displayed by Francis I as a racial specimen "wearing only a grass band." This rumination on anatomy brings into the text the anatomist Philip Verheyen, born in 1648 in Flanders, who keeps his amputated leg, preserved in alcohol, on the headboard of his bed. The novel continues in this vein dipping in and out of submerged stories, truths, and flights of fantasy stitched together by associations. Punctuated by maps and figures, the discursive novel is reminiscent of the work of Sebald. The threads ultimately converge in a remarkable way, making this an extraordinary accomplishment.