Flights by Olga Tokarczuk (translated from the Polish by Jennifer Croft, Man Booker International Prize 2018)

“There’s too much in the world. It would be wiser to reduce it, rather than expanding or enlarging it. We’d be better off stuffing it back into its little can – a portable panopticon we’d be allowed to peek inside only on Saturday afternoons, once our daily tasks had bewn completed, once we’d made sure there was clean underwear to wear, ironed shirts taut over the armrests, floors scrubbed, coffee cake cooling on the windowsill. We could peer inside it through a tiny little hole like at the Fotoplastikon in Warsaw, marvelling over its every little detail…We have no choice now but to learn to endlessly select.” p. 65

In her novel Flights, Olga Tokarczuk selects vignettes for us, details of lives that somehow feel familiar to my own even though I know they couldn’t possibly be. I’m not Polish. Or, a doctor. I don’t even like looking at body parts in formaldehyde which seem to take up the entire middle of the novel. But, somehow it spoke to me.

Take the phantom pain in an amputated limb. I don’t know what that is, personally, but I know a type of phantom pain from a person who’s missing from my side. I know something of the searching she describes, the hunger for meaning she describes, the flights that we take wondering if we’re going in the right direction. Wondering if we’ll ever reach our intended destination.

Don’t expect a story, a plot with a beginning, middle and end. Don’t expect clear answers to the questions which arise.

Some favorite quotes:

“They weren’t real travellers: they left in order to return. And they were relieved when they got back, with a sense of having fulfilled an obligation.” p. 12

“But nomads and merchants, as tbey 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 be repeated. This idea favours risk-taking, living life to the fullest, seizing the day. And yet the innovation is a profoundly bitter one: when change over time is irreversible, loss and mourning become daily things. This is why you’ll never hear them utter words like ‘futile’ or ’empty’. p. 59

“Moments, crumbs, fleeting configurations – no sooner have they come into existence than they fall to pieces. Life? There’s no such thing; I see lines, planes and bodies, and their transformations in time. Time, meanwhile, seems a simple instrument for the measurement of tiny changes, a school ruler with a simplified scale – it’s just three points: was, is and will be.” p. 187-188

“So it would appear that memory is a drawer stuffed with papers – some of them are totally useless, those one-time documents like dry cleaning tickets, and the proofs of purchase of winter boots or a toaster long since gone. But then there are other reusable ones, testaments not to events but to whole processes: a child’s vaccination booklet, her student ID like a tiny passport, its pages half-filled with stamps from each term, her school diploma, a certificate of completion from a dressmaking course.” p. 296

There is an angst which comes from a life without faith, a life which questions its every move. And if it weren’t for my faith, I would feel hopelessly lost in a flight pattern not of my own design as is described within these pages. As it is, though, this emerges as my favorite so far of all the Man Booker International Prize books on the long list. The imagery, the writing, the scenes are incredible.

Swallowing Mercury by Wioletta Greg (translated by Eliza Marciniak, Man Booker International Prize long list 2017)

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How fresh is the voice of a young girl, especially in the hands of Wioletta Greg. It is as if I am listening to one of my students telling me a story; there is a mixture of the bizarre within truth such that you can hardly separate the facts from the imagination. Both are equally important to the story teller, and in this case, to me, the reader.

In chapters which could stand alone, but together contribute to the overall story, we see what it is like to pass from childhood to adulthood in a Polish rural community during the 1970s and ’80s. Often the chapters will hold luminous description and then end suddenly, jarringly, with a revelation about adults which they have tried to keep secret. It’s as though the girl speaking to us, Wiola, has an omniscient eye. She tells us everything, with no agenda or shame.

What is behind the locked door at the dressmaker’s house? Why does Wiola swallow mercury after coming back from the doctor’s? How does the (fictional) town of Hektary prepare for the visiting portrait of Our Lady from St. Anthony’s Basilica? How does a small group of students, organized by the student council to search for scrap metal, turn into a game of spin the bottle in an old woman’s basement?

Wiola will not bend to the expectations of authority around her (much like her father who deserted the army and became a taxidermist). She would rather burn her collection of matchbook labels than acquiesce to the demands of a bachelor who catches her reaching for his box of Orbis travel agency matches featuring Krakow’s famous Lajkonik horsemen.

As she grows up, the political events of Poland during this time period are gently referred to. Familiar names to me, such as Lech Wałęsa, make the briefest of appearances to remind us that this is more than a coming of age story. It is also a finger pointing to the realities of daily life in Poland at the end of the communist era.

Find more reviews at 1st Reading’s Blog, Winstonsdad’s Blog, Messenger’s  Booker and David’s Book World.

Swallowing Mercury by Wioletta Greg
Translated from the Polish by Eliza Marciniak
Published by Portobello, January 5, 2017
160 pages