Flights, tr. Jennifer Croft (2017. Original: Bieguni, 2007) reads very much like one of the cabinets of curiosities it alludes to: each story is like a small drawer we are eager to open; in each drawer, we find an odd, mythical-sounding anecdote, or a slightly distorted idea. The strangest thing, however, is that the more drawers we open and the more stories we draw out, the more our journey turns inward.
The book starts in the voice of an unnamed narrator who is restlessly travelling the world: “Personality unstable, or not entirely reliable. Age all in your mind. Gender grammatical.” She could be anyone, but bears some resemblance to you – a Polish woman who studied Psychology and ended up being a writer. We seem to be her travel companions, as she tells us of her fascination with movement – “from the shuddering of buses, the rumble of planes, trains’ and ferries’ rocking” – and with cabinets of curiosities – “all things spoiled, flawed, defective, broken”, “anything that deviates from the norm, that is (…) overgrown or incomplete, monstrous and disgusting”.
As the book progresses, her voice gets overlapped by a third-person narration in the form of vignettes and anecdotes. She might be just one of the characters in a book of loosely connected short-stories; she might be a writer talking to us during a flight or in an airport, telling us a string of stories; or she might be assembling a fragmentary travel journal. We may well be the repository of the narratives she has collected throughout her journey, a collage of overheard scraps of conversation.
Going back and forth through time and space, and crossing thought reality and fiction, the book is a collection of real and imaginary episodes that revolve around time and movement – and their relation to the body. Interspersed with the narrator’s travels and musings, we have the fictionalization of factual stories – the 17th-century Flemish anatomist Philip Verheyen, who discovered the Achilles tendon by dissecting his own amputated leg; Chopin’s sister, who strapped to her leg a jar containing the composer’s heart, concealing it to evade Russian border control, so as to fulfil Chopin’s wish to be brought back to Poland and buried at home; Angelo Soliman, a courtier and diplomat who had been skinned and stuffed after his death, and later displayed in the Austrian court as a curiosity, because of his black skin; Frederik Ruysch, a Dutch physician who developed techniques for preserving anatomical specimens.
Alongside these accounts of real events, we also have some fictional stories: Dr. Blau, a professor who keeps photographs of his lovers’ vaginas, and is determined to discover the best method of preserving human organs: “If it were up to Blau, he would make the world differently — the soul could be mortal, what do we need it for, anyway, but the body would be immortal”; Annushka, a devoted mother and housewife who, one day, decides to run away, and ends up as a homeless beggar, travelling in circles; Kunicki, a Polish man who is driven mad after his wife and child disappear during a vacation in an island in Croatia; an unnamed woman who returns to Poland to help her terminally-ill first lover.
And finally, there are stories which are lost in the grey zone between fact and fiction: the anecdotes the narrator tells us about her travels; the books she is reading; her chance encounter with a woman who is doing research on all cruelties perpetrated by humanity, so as to write a ‘book of infamy’. Needless to say, the most bizarre stories in the book are precisely the factual ones; moreover, even when writing about well-known men, you tell their stories through the perspective of the women in their background – their forgotten daughters or sisters. Maybe Flights is a point of departure, a flight exercise, an escape loophole, a vanishing point; maybe it is, in itself, a different kind of ‘book of infamy.’
The original Polish title, ‘bieguni’, refers to a sect of Slavic wanderers who believed that the only way to escape the power of the Antichrist was to remain in constant movement. A member of this group appears in one of the stories, a “shrouded” woman whom Annushka meets in her flight from home: “Whoever pauses will be petrified, whoever stops, pinned like an insect, his heart pierced by a wooden needle, his hands and feet drilled through and pinned into the threshold and the ceiling (…). This is why tyrants of all stripes, infernal servants, have such deep-seated hatred for the nomads – this is why they persecute the Gypsies and the Jews, and why they force all free people to settle, assigning the addresses that serve as our sentences.”
The book reminded me strongly of Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn (tr. Michael Hulse, 1998. Original: Die Ringe des Saturn: Eine englische Wallfahrt, 1995), which I reread recently: throughout the text, there are images and maps, and the book is held together by recurring figures and meditations on death, pilgrimages, and memory. However, instead of Sebald’s pervasive melancholy, Flights is crossed through by a lively sense of humour, slightly distorted, and bordering on the grotesque.
The book centres around a web of delicately interconnected themes: the contrast and interplay between movement and stillness, time and space, map and territory, preservation and decay. The English title, in its many facets, also captures this aspect very well: the act of flying; the action of fleeing; the passage of time (‘the flight of days’); extravagant ideas (‘flights of fancy’); a journey made through air; a flock of migratory birds (‘a flight of geese’); and the attempt to evade reality.
Without patronizing nor pontifying, the book has also a clear stance about the current rise of nationalism in Europe: “Fluidity, mobility, illusoriness — these are precisely the qualities that make us civilized. Barbarians don’t travel. They simply go to destinations or conduct raids.”
As a series of anecdotes held together by the idea of movement through space, from one place to another and from one story to another, the book is also pervaded by the idea of time: time preserved in jars; chronological time; and, most particularly, Kairos – the proper or opportune time for action, that fleeting moment all travellers are in search of when they set out in their journeys. By the end, the pictures of maps we find throughout the book begin to almost feel as if failed attempts at trapping time and space – much like the dead, preserved body parts the narrator is constantly alluding to; and much like her ambivalence about storytelling as a means of both preservation and destruction.
The first-person narrator could well be a kindred spirit of the ‘bieguni’ people: she refuses to settle down, as much as this book refuses to be pinned down. The stories begin mid-way and end without any final resolution; we meet the characters as if they were travellers passing us by and then vanishing. The book reads like an open journey: it has no fixed destination, and it changes as we go along.
Nothing happens – the march of darkness halts at the door to the house, and all the clamour of fading falls silent, makes a thick skin like on hot milk cooling. The contours of the buildings against the backdrop of the sky stretch out into infinity, slowly lose their sharp angles, corners, edges. The dimming light takes the air with it – there’s nothing left to breathe. Now the dark soaks into my skin. Sounds have curled up inside themselves, withdrawn their snail’s eyes; the orchestra of the world has departed, vanishing into the park. ―
When, in our second year, we discussed the function of defence mechanisms and found that we were humbled by the power of that portion of our psyche, we began to understand that if it weren’t for rationalization, sublimation, denial – all the little tricks we let ourselves perform – if instead we simply saw the world as it was, with nothing to protect us, honestly and courageously, it would break our hearts. ―
Anyone who has ever tried to write a novel knows what an arduous task it is, undoubtedly one of the worst ways of occupying oneself. You have to remain within yourself all the time, in solitary confinement. It’s a controlled psychosis, an obsessive paranoia manacled to work, completely lacking in the feather pens and bustles and Venetian masks we would ordinarily associate with it, clothed instead in a butcher’s apron and rubber boots, eviscerating knife in hand. ―
She says that sedentary peoples, farmers, prefer the pleasures of circular time, in which every object and event must return to its own beginning, curl back up into an embryo and repeat the process of maturation and death. But nomads and merchants, as they set off on journeys, had to think up a different type of time for themselves, one that would better respond to the needs of their travels. That time is linear time, more practical because it was able to measure progress toward a goal or destination, rises in percentages. Every moment is unique; no moment can ever be repeated. (…) She says the only way to survive in that sort of extended, linear time is to keep your distance, a kind of dance that consists in approaching and retreating, one step forward, one step back, one step to the left, one to the right – easy enough steps to remember. (…) But I take a different view of time. Every traveller’s time is a lot of times in one, quite a wide array. It is island time, archipelagos of order in an ocean of chaos; it is the time produced by the clocks in train stations, everywhere varying; conventional time, mean time, which no one ought to take too seriously. ―
‘The true God is an animal. He’s in animals, so close that we don’t notice. Every day God sacrifices himself for us, dying over and over, feeding us with his body, clothing us in his skin, allowing us to test our medicines on him so that we might live longer and better. Thus does he show his affection, bestow on us his friendship and love.’ ―
Describing something is like using it – it destroys; the colours wear off, the corners lose their definition, and in the end what’s been described begins to fade, to disappear. ―
Many people believe that there exists in the world’s coordinate system a perfect point where time and space reach an agreement. This may even be why these people travel, leaving their homes behind, hoping that even by moving around in a chaotic fashion they will increase their likelihood of happening upon this point. Landing at the right time in the right place – seizing the opportunity, grabbing the moment and not letting go – would mean the code to the safe had been cracked, the combination revealed, the truth exposed. ―
Flight from Irkutsk to Moscow. It takes off at 8 a.m. and lands in Moscow at the same time – at eight o’clock in the morning on that same day. It turns out to be right at sunrise, which means the whole flight takes place during dawn. Passengers remain in this one moment, a great, peaceful Now, vast as Siberia itself. So there should be time enough for confessions of whole lifetimes. Time elapses inside the plane but doesn’t trickle out of it. ―
The ‘soul’ is a concept that is hard to understand or identify with these days. If God is – may I be forgiven this bile – the One who wound up the clock, the Clockmaker, or, in fact, the spirit of nature, appearing in its hazy way and completely impersonal, then the notion of ‘soul’ becomes uncomfortable, embarrassing. What sort of ruler would reign by means of something so ephemeral and indefinite? ―
When you have a little kid, you never have to think about anything, everything is obvious and natural. Attaching child to breast, and his weight; his smell – familiar and heart-warming. But children aren’t people. Children become people when they wriggle out of your arms and say ‘no’. ―
‘In reality, movement doesn’t exist. Like the turtle in Zeno’s paradox, we’re heading nowhere, if anything we’re simply wandering into the interior of a moment, and there is no end, nor any destination. And the same might apply to space – since we are all identically removed from infinity, there can also be no somewhere – nothing is truly anchored on any day, nor in any place.’ ―
About the book
- Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2017, tr. Jennifer Croft, 410 p. Goodreads
- Riverhead Books, 2018, tr. Jennifer Croft, 416 p. Goodreads
- First published in 2007
- Original title: Bieguni
- Winner of the 2018 Man Booker International Prize
- My rating: 5 stars
- I read this book for 20 Books of Summer, Backpack Through Europe Summer Reading Challenge & Women in Translation Month