Sunday, 2 January 2022

Olga Tokarczuk, Flights 2, What the Shrouded Runaway was Saying

In the middle of  Olga Tokarczuk's Flights we meet a shrouded runaway, a woman dressed in many layers who stands in the street cursing the world hoarse. Enter Annushka who is wandering the city, looking for a good place to cry, with maybe one or two observers, is best in her view.  'I can't go home', she says to the shrouded woman. 'Do you have an address?' asks the shrouded woman. Annushka recites her address. 'So just forget it,' blurts the shrouded woman.

Some reading confirms one's own existence, and some contradicts it so vehemently that the words come on like a strong wind blowing through. So just forget it, she says. I am the converse of the shrouded woman in her quilts and boots. I have lived in the same place for forty-five years. I do not readily take flight, shift, sway, move, except in my mind's eye. The counterbalance to the swaying moving populace in Flights, is the procession of foetuses and body parts in jars, helpless ocnophils ready to be studied. 

In the 1980s I learned a pair of words, ocnophil and philobat. An ocnophil is attached to things and places.  If an ocnophil travels, she has a teddy hanging from her rucksac. A philobat has a desire for open spaces. Olga Tokarczuk is a philobat. Sway, go on, move, says the shrouded woman. That's the only way to get away from whatever tyrant is persecuting you. Antichrist or husband.

This is why tyrants of all stripes, infernal servants, have such a hatred for the nomads — this is why they persecute the Gypsies and the Jews, and why they force all free peoples to settle, assigning the addresses that serve as our sentences.

Some of the narratives are extensive, like the one about the shrouded woman, others might be only a page or a paragraph. The structure is an example of what the book is about, running in all directions, in all centuries. In Polish the words for past and future differ by only one letter. Surely this gives the Polish speaker an altered perspective on past and future, with just that one dip of difference between a y and an e. 

The title, Flights, suggests airports to the anglophone — and there are plenty of airports, various — whereas the Polish title, Bieguni, means something more like wanderers or runaways, and refers to a sect, possibly real, possibly not, whose members wandered the earth like yogi. 

The reader wanders this book as yogi wandered the earth. It's the kind of book that spoils you for other books for a while, before the old roving curiosity kicks back in and you ride out on the back of your reading, like the Youngest Prince rising out of the poppy fields on the back of an albatross over the marshes and forests of the kingdom of Thrice Nine, towards the empire of Thrice Ten. 

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.

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