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A traveller’s Almanac

The body’s map takes on the map of the world, and the world’s map, becomes the body’s guide

A traveller’s Almanac

Flights – hold on we’re about to lift off. There are books you do not open. And if you do, it will be wise to have a plan, a failsafe. There are books you keep wrapped in protective cloth, tucked away in bedside tables, carefully placed at the top of the highest bookshelf.

Then there are books that are no longer objects, but portals. Books you fear, but also adore, both love and detest. These books you open at random, reciting passages as ultimate truths. They are sacred books, books that are worshipped. Books on alchemy, sorcery, witchcraft, theology, fantasy, and even, at the risk of being passé, there are those we call truly literary books. Books that occupy the literary in its literal sense – that is, according to the sixth literal definition presented on Dictionary.com, those that are “engaged in or having the profession of literature or writing”.

But now we’ve crossed into uncertain territory. What is literature and what is it to write? Can a book occupy this function in and for itself? Can it write itself, as it is written, as it is completed? Is it simply a good story with a certain attention paid to style that detaches us from our egos and plunges us into a foreign world? Or is the literary suggestive of a certain machinery, a peculiar way of interpreting and responding to the world?

Tokarczuk confronts the colossal beast of modernity, its excesses in information, its discharge, its crises, and like a reassuring mother to the world, affirms, re-affirms, encourages, and cradles.

And is writing just writing? Or does it contain an entire ontology, a greater metaphysics, a way of being and positioning ourselves in relationship to the universe? Does writing and the written necessarily need to end as it is written? Imagine a writing that is not bound by the page nor by the word, a writing that evacuates itself from the book, that writes itself out and into the world. A writing that takes flight. “I dreamed of working on a boat like that when I grew up – or even better, of becoming one of those boats.”

There are books that you read. Then there are those that read you. Books that are manuals. Guides. Markers. There are books that inform. Books that heal. Books that transport. Then there are those books, so rare, and also so abundant, as their occurrence is contingent on a frame of mind. Books that enable you. Books that birth a self within the self. That peel away entire selves. That unlock you. I was never the same after.  I could have never imagined. I felt in a way I could not before.

Well, Flights. Really, flies. Lifting off. Departing. Never-landing. A state of non-terminus. Limbo. Longing. Desire. The unknown. The liminal. So many states and beings are contained within this beautiful and sincere manual on how to live, and even more important than life for life, but a life in movement, a life in action, the verbal quality of life, its activity – its persistence as well as its aimlessness.

Imagine, lifting off, and never having to touch down, not for a lack of a destination, or for a depleting supply of engine fuel, but because there is no need to. Really, no need to at all. It’s about keeping your feet in the air, about existing in a suspended state, it’s about floating, freeflying, about diving into others, into stories that are not yours, and yet not being burdened by their heaviness or even their absurdity, it’s about giving into their lightness, their pleasantness, their beauty and simplicity. A life of never-ending buoyancy.

Flights will make you gladder, freer, softer, and it will make you a better lover. Can an unfinished sentence construct an entire ideology? Can you learn to live through the incomplete fragments of poets? Flights is an example of this – shredded stories, cut-outs, vignettes, silhouettes, montage, yes you can, veritably you can.

Olga Tokarczuk knows her continental philosophy, her post-structural psychoanalysis, by knowing let me say she feels it, grasps its, translates it. Flights is a thoroughly informed novel, Tokarczuk casually, effortlessly deconstructs and then reconstructs entire spatio-temporal relationships. “Constellation, not sequencing, carries truth.” Simply – what we know as travel time emerges, and it is experienced as synchronicity, “archipelagos of order in an ocean of chaos”. Time that moves separately. Indecisively. That moulds, counters itself, according to the time at hand. Time that is both thick and thin, quick and prolonged.

Tokarczuk slides into meditations on desire, lust, and sensitivity as if these were offhand conversations had over a cuppa, not profound ways of speaking that are deeply influenced by lyrical poetry, existentialist philosophy, and a psychology of self-exploration. A desire that is best depicted in the preposition, ‘towards’, an unattainable desire that neither craves nor necessitates fulfilment, a desire with directionality, but without destination.

Flights is a seminal work, there’s no way around it, a major arrival.

Within Flights, we encounter all the little secrets that life doesn’t profess to teach, secrets that are deeply hidden in books and in nooks, but Flights lays them bare. Here is a lifetime of secrets. How to pay attention. How to travel. How to wander. How to love. How to be curious. We learn about the body’s map, and the map the body traverses. We discover a physiological exploration of travelling, which is both internal and external. It’s an almanac. A grandparent who has lived a life-and-a-half and then some, and whose stories you devour, disbelieving and unsure, but totally rapt and consumed. Stories that bring about a credulity, an ongoing bafflement, that cause even doubt to surrender.

The body’s map takes on the map of the world, and the world’s map, becomes the body’s guide. The body loses its territory, its dominion. Onto form – Flights is part travelogue as it wanders around the earth and through historical time; part forensic analysis as it investigates anatomy and its imprint on intangible realities; part enervation of theory as theory as it exists in the realm of experience.

Tokarczuk confronts the colossal beast of modernity, its excesses in information, its discharge, its crises, and like a reassuring mother to the world, affirms, re-affirms, encourages, and cradles. She is that family member who is regarded as a bad influence, but really is a guiding light, because she allows you to dip your feet into depths you wouldn’t normally have the courage to otherwise. Tokarczuk gives you the belief to live as you should and as you deserve. She spreads the ocean around you, and rather than pushing you in kicking and howling, you wilfully jump in with her, for whatever she seems to be doing, seems to be too bloody good to pass by.

Flights Author: Olga Tokarczuk
Translator: Jennifer Croft
Publisher: Fitzcarraldo Editions
Year: 2017
Pages: 424
Price: £12.99

Arsalan Isa

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Arsalan is a writer currently residing in Karachi.

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