Flights Review: Winner of 2018 Man Booker Prize

   A quick Google search for the meaning of the word ‘Contuition’ proves utterly unfruitful. I see a handful of search results from random blogs and wordpresses that will not qualify for citations; I see a JStor article about a medieval theologian named Bonaventure; apparently his concept of ‘Contuition’ when placed beside Martin Heidegger’s concept of ‘Thinking’ was worthy of a comparative paper; well, great – as if Heidegger weren’t unyielding enough already. Defeated, I return to the paperback novel Flights where I first encountered this word:

‘Contuition,’ repeated the professor, his irritation painstakingly concealed, ‘is, as I said, a variety of insight that spontaneously reveals the presence of some larger-than-human strength, some unity above heterogeneity. I’ll expand tomorrow,’ he added, with his mouth full.‘Right,’ responded the man somewhat helplessly. ‘But what would that mean?’

Flights surprises you. I for one am classical in my literary tastes – I like gigantic Russian tomes that carefully follow characters from start to end. I find myself invested in their journeys. Their moments of revelation and reflection, of rapture and defeat feel personal to me. On the other hand, while I am excited by the pastiche-like fiction written by authors like Milan Kundera and Italo Calvino, I do sometimes feel these works compromise depth and complexity of character for the sake of intellectual exploration or superficial cleverness. The engines behind such novels seem to be philosophical ideas, and not something more emotionally or spiritually felt.

Flights is a pastiche work of fiction. Written in beautiful prose, and stuffed with short stories, historical anecdotes, fragments of memoir and discursive inserts, the novel – as one of its characters puts it – heads nowhere, “if anything we’re simply wandering into the interior of a moment, and there is no end, nor any destination.”

The imagery and metaphors in this novel’s supple, luminous prose touched a deep chord in me. They are baked into a narrative voice that seems casually unpoetic, and fairly unsentimental. When the poetry arrives, its effect is even more moving, its surprises far truer to the vagaries of our own private languages.

Structurally, the novel defies categorization, and Olga Tokarczuk claims it is a new genre entirely; a ‘constellation novel’. “I wanted to try something new,” she says. Touching on themes of the body, of travel modern and medieval, of a desperate need to escape, the novel takes its readers on an ancient adventure. Through the journeys of a panoply of unconnected characters, Flights radiates like a jagged diamond: as solemn as pilgrimage, as tender as a perfect honeymoon, as confounding as exotic travel, as mundane as commuting, as alt as backpacking, and as awesome as first voyages to the edge of the Earth. Welcome aboard.

So what is a ‘constellation novel’? And what does it have to do with this word in my introduction, with contuition – with ‘a variety of insight that spontaneously reveals the presence of .. some unity above heterogeneity’? My essay is a semi-philosophical precis of the particular epistemology that Tokarczuk’s novel proposes. It is also a review of the novel. Crudely put, I am guided by two questions: what is the novel trying to say? is it worth the read?

Travel

Let’s begin again. Here is a snapshot of the many stories in Flights: In ‘Ash Wednesday Feast’, Eryk, lover of Melville’s Moby Dick, is a ferry operator at the United Northern Ferry Company. He ferries passengers from Baltic island to Baltic mainland and back, several times a day. On Ash Wednesday, exhausted by the banality of back-forth commuting and smashed as all hell, Eryk decides to take the ferry – passengers and all – off-route and out to the drunk and unplanned sea. Elsewhere, in another story, Annushka, a middle-aged Muscovite trapped in a suffocating life, finds herself drawn to a strange homeless woman she sees frequently on the underground trains. Without much preemption, Annushka suddenly abandons everything – her terminally ill child, her inebriated husband, her loving if benumbed mother-in-law – and wanders away aimlessly, homelessly, namelessly on the same underground trains.

In stories such as Annushka’s and Eryk’s, Tokarczuk makes escape look dangerously easy.

‘I can’t go home,’ Annushka says suddenly and looks down at her feet. She’s stunned she said something like this, and only now does she think in terror what it means. The woman murmurs something indistinct in response, but after swallowing her bite, she asks: ‘Do you have an address?’Yes,’ says Annushka, and she recites it: ‘Kuznetskaya 46, apartment 78.’‘So just forget it,’ blurts the woman, with her mouth full.

Tokarczuk directly and indirectly comments on the novel and its narrative techniques, on its themes of escape, travel and confusion. Consider the chunks where the narrator of Flights chances upon a pair of “travel psychologists” who take up open areas at various airports, and lecture at passersby. These travel psychologists want to focus on a new study of the human condition – one that observes people as they are in transit. It is in all such moments that the method and motivation to Tokarczuk’s madness becomes clearer. These travel psychologists seek to create a ‘catalogue of humankind’ and believe that the only convincing way to do so is by ‘placing people in some sort of motion, moving from one place to another’. This is precisely the kind of cataloguing that Tokarczuk engages with in her ‘constellation novel’ – placing people in transit, moving from one place to another. And what does this say about the human condition? What does it say about the nature of self?

If these ‘travel psychologists’ are to be believed, our best bet at understanding and communicating concepts as complex as ‘the self’ is not by means of a cogent lecture or a logical and linear narrative; rather, a carefully curated constellation does the trick best; a gathering together of disparate parts, and an arrangement – gaps, edges, lacunas and all – in a manner that reveals the presence of ‘some unity above heterogeneity’. A constellation that provokes contuition.

The travel psychologists say (ironically, in lecture form):

‘That would merely be an approximation, in the same way that an approximation of the earth gives us a grid of latitude and longitude. While in reality, in order to reflect our experience more accurately, it would be necessary instead to assemble a whole, out of pieces of more or less the same size, placed concentrically on the same surface. Constellation, not sequencing, carries truth.’

Anatomy

Pause. This is all fine and dandy in a fuzzy world of poetry and imprecision, sure, but in a real, rational universe, selfhood is founded on stable definitions, no? We already have our scientific mappings of personhood – and need only turn towards the study of human anatomy, towards biology and neuroscience, to chart a clear and comprehensible course. Is it not? Turns out Tokarczuk did exactly this. While writing Flights, she spent time researching the human anatomy; she enrolled in university to study its history. This is perhaps why Flights is as much about travel as it is about the human body; as much about pressurized aluminum vessels zipping through the stratosphere, as it is about the intricate mess-of-organs packed into flesh that these vessels carry back and forth.

Many of the fragmented stories in Flights are about anatomists, surgical theatres, museum exhibits full of stuffed bodies and limbs bottled up in formaldehyde.

One of these is about a 17th century Dutch anatomist named Philip Verheyen. Verheyen is a real historical figure, an anatomist who studied theology at University in 1675, before an ill-fated amputation of his left leg rendered him unfit for the clergy. Verheyen then turned to studying the anatomy, and was the first to discover the fibrous tissue that connects our calves to our heels, which he cleverly christened ‘the Achilles tendon’. In the years that followed the amputation of his left leg, Verheyen began experiencing physical pain from where his left leg used to be. This is in fact a common occurrence even today among most patients, usually militant combatants, after the amputation of a limb. Modern neuroscience can explain the nervous-mechanism responsible for ‘phantom pain’. It can explain how but not why. Perhaps why is reserved for the rumination of poets; perhaps the question is deemed irrelevant because the answers are imprecise.

Flights depicts the episode surrounding Phillip Verheyen’s ‘phantom pain’ in semi-fictionalized form. In a fragment titled ‘Letters to the Amputated Leg’ – narrated by the fictional voice of Verheyen’s confidant – we are shown Verheyen’s slow descent into madness. Confounded by the bodily pain he experiences, Verheyen begins probing the preserved and dissected left leg. And Tokarczuk, in re-telling this episode, shows us her mastery at rendering such anatomical incidents into existential images resonant with glimmers of the soul:

He sat down on the floor, stretched his legs out before him, and laid the amputated limb on the place just below his left knee. He closed his eyes and groped for the painful place. His hand touched a cold piece of flesh – but could not reach the pain.

Detachment

When travelling, I often make choices that enhance and protect my experience of solitude. I put on the headphones and stare out the window. I stare at clouds. I awe and I reflect. I lean in to the drama of journeying. At the end of college semesters, moments after sitting into the early morning cab, I’d enjoy the chance to feel a bit sad. It felt necessary to do so, to take stock of what had passed, and to mourn the irrevocable end of one chapter before looking ahead to the next. These moments nourished me. They affirmed to me the presence of my own awareness; they intimated to me a consciousness that feels.

Flights delivers a great handful of these moments of privacy at the moments I least expect it. They take me back to moments of my own solemn mobility. Right after the narrator shares a fragmentary musing about Wikipedia, or a long-drawn reverie about the concept of ‘synchronicity’, she suddenly draws us into stories etched in a realism that reminds me of Tolstoy. (In fact, I wonder if Togarczuk’s Annushka, who finds her bleak fate intertwined with Russian trains, is an echo of Tolstoy’s heroine Anna Karenina). All such moments of intimacy exist unconnected, afloat in an equal constellation.

Another favorite moment comes from the short story ‘Kairos’. Here, Karen – the beloved younger wife of an 80-year old professor of Greek History – is vacationing with her husband on a Grecian cruise. They are invited on the cruise every year, where the professor gives short lectures to interested tourists on ancient Greek history and culture.

She knew the course of the lectures well. But each time it brought her pleasure to observe him, like putting a desert rose in water, as though he were recounting his own history rather than that of Greece.

While tenderly and tediously caring for her aging husband throughout their journey, Karen later steps out onto the cabin deck for a moment’s respite:

The cabin led directly out onto the first-class deck, and in the evenings, once the professor was already asleep, Karen liked to take advantage of this amenity and stand at the railing to smoke her one daily cigarette, gazing out at the lights in the distance they had passed. The deck, heated by the sun during the day, now, too, gave off a warmth, while a dark, cool air flowed out over the water, and it seemed to Karen that her body marked the boundary between day and night.

Journeying – what an oddly personal and impersonal experience. The Journey exists before your time. The Journey will exist after you are gone. It exists independent of you. And yet, if you are searching, if you are patient, or lonely, or if you have been brewing a certain brand of frustration in you for centuries past, the Journey relents. It open its secret doors to you. It lets you out – or lets you in.

Flights is an illuminating if “imprecise” answer to why literature. By taking us through fragments of the minds and hearts of its many characters, all placed beside one another and triggered into mobility, the novel helps us intuit – helps us contuit – the existence of something above it all, “the presence of some larger-than-human strength, some unity above heterogeneity.”

We glimpse an escape from solipsism, and an emanation of something poignantly unifying. What a piece of work is man. How amusing, how curious, how sad. How desperate to break free and fly. And why?

Yash Saraf is an actor, writer and filmmaker. He studied Comparative Literature at Stanford University, USA and currently works out of Goa as a screenwriter and producer at Memesys Lab.