Book reviews, Comments, Culture, In Focus, Uncategorized

When the orchestra of the world departs

Disconcerting evocations of troubled lives and unsettling thoughts constitute “Flights”, now translated into lucid English some eleven years after its first publication in Polish.


Olga Tokarczuk. Photo by Jacek Kołodziejski

Sean Sheehan


“Flights”, is written by Olga Tokarczuk, an award-winning novelist and public intellectual who is well known in her native country of Poland but hardly at all in Western Europe.

Later this year, two more of her books – “The books of Jacob” and “Drive your plough” – will help change this situation.

The book begins with a sad narrator, for whom “the orchestra of the world has departed” and who goes on to study psychology at university. The narrator is not overcome by melancholy but finds another metaphor for human existence: “We are cities whose architecture comes down to walls, ramparts, strongholds: bunker states.”

Tokarczuk explores the consequences of living in a bunker state and what can happen when the ‘walls’ and ‘ramparts’ are shaken to the point of collapse.

This becomes a book about travel, migrations of the soul and the in-between states that the traveller enters into, a condition of the mind that robs you of your normal identity. Hence the book’s title takes on a rich resonance.

The text describes journeys of the body and the mind; it is about not belonging and the peculiar ways signs and coincidences provide clues to the mystery of living and dying. Everything remains at the level of clues; no final answers are provided.

“Flights”,  is not a conventional novel. It composed of both narrative parts, that read like short stories and which occasionally join up, and fragments of writing that reflect on the body; matters of life and death.

Some parts are single paragraphs, others extend for many pages. Tokarczuk describes her book as a ‘constellation novel’; readers need a lateral approach, sensing connections and feeling where the metaphors lead them.

The boundary between fiction and non-fiction blurs, as in the story about Chopin’s death in Paris and how his heart was cut from his corpse and buried separately in Warsaw. It seems too lurid to be true but is based on facts.

Photo Pixabay

Although Tokarczuk makes no reference to it, something very similar happened to the Victorian explorer David Livingstone after his death (his heart removed by friends and buried in Africa; the rest of his body shipped home to London).

It seems like a violation: as the narrator observes, even a dead body is ‘a kind of intensive whole…. Form is in its way alive’.

Someone else in the book is of the opinion that the highest sort of reason is not logical but intuitive – and this could be taken as a motto that reveals itself throughout the writing. It offers a degree of comfort if, through intuition, we ‘immediately notice the deterministic necessity of the existence of all things. Everything that is necessary cannot be otherwise.’

“Flights”, by Olga Tokarczuk is published by Fitzcarraldo Editions.

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