The Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk had to wait until she was 28 to receive a passport and make her first trip abroad. Like many Poles, Ms. Tokarczuk (pronounced To-KAR-chook) rejoiced when over 40 years of Soviet-induced international isolation finally came to an end. The destination was hardly an exotic one — East Germany in 1990 — but it signaled the beginning of Ms. Tokarczuk’s love affair with travel and a delectable way of writing about it that continues to evolve.
In May, Ms. Tokarczuk won the Man Booker International Prize for her novel “Flights,” which treats travel as a uniquely corporeal experience. “Flights” is made up of 116 vignettes — both fiction and nonfiction — ranging from a Polish man’s desperate search for his wife and child after they disappear during a vacation in Croatia, to a historical account of Chopin’s heart being smuggled into Warsaw beneath his sister’s skirt. Critics have compared Ms. Tokarczuk’s nonlinear novels and short stories, which are often punctuated by mysterious maps and diagrams, to the work of celebrated European authors like W.G. Sebald and Milan Kundera.
With “Flights,” Ms. Tokarczuk, 56, became the first Polish writer to win the British prize which is now awarded annually to a book in English-language translation. The Polish-born British writer Lisa Appiganesi, who chaired the judging, commended Ms. Tokarczuk’s novel for its narrative voice “which moves from wit and gleeful mischief to real emotional texture.” “Flights,” which sold over 160,000 hardcover copies when it was published in Poland in 2007 and won the country’s prestigious Nike Award, is being released in the United States by Riverhead Books on Aug. 14.
A Dozen Years Ago, When the World Was Different
In a recent Skype interview Ms. Tokarczuk said that when she began writing “Flights,” more than a dozen years ago, she set out to describe a world very different from the one we are living in now. “I wrote this book when the world was looking to be open for everybody,” she said. “Now we’re seeing how the European Union will probably become weakened by the policies of countries like Poland and Hungary, which are focused on their borders once again.”
Speaking from her home in Wroclaw in southwestern Poland, Ms. Tokarczuk also referenced President Trump’s plan to build a wall on the United States border with Mexico. “Twelve years ago there was no mention of the idea of walls or borders, which were originally adopted by totalitarian systems,” she said. “Back then I must admit that I was sure that we had put totalitarianism behind us.”
Ms. Tokarczuk’s first book was a volume of poetry (“Cities in Mirrors”) published in Poland in 1989. She has since gone on to write eight novels and two short story collections, which have made her a literary celebrity in her native country. Many of these — such as her breakthrough novel “Primeval and Other Times,” which was published in Poland in 1996 — have been written in the picaresque tradition and reflect the upheavals of Polish history. “Flights” is not her only book to be translated into English, but it is the first one to establish her international reputation. Its journey to translation owed everything to the persistence of its American translator Jennifer Croft who spent 10 years speaking to editors and publishing excerpts from the book in magazines like N+1 and Bomb.
Ms. Croft, who received a National Endowment for the Arts grant to do the translation, eventually convinced the rising British independent publisher Fitzcarraldo Editions to gamble on “Flights,” which was released in Britain in 2017 to glowing reviews. “A lot of ‘Flights’ is about forging human connections and considering the other,” Ms. Croft said also via Skype. “So I think it happened to hit in the U.K. at a good moment right after Brexit, and I think probably that the reception in the U.S. is going to be similar.”
Ms. Tokarczuk, who worked for several years as a clinical psychologist after graduating from the University of Warsaw in 1985, spent time traveling alone during the period when she wrote “Flights.” “I had just gotten divorced and had a huge need to change my life,” she said. “I found that traveling on my own created a different state of mind because when you travel with your partner or a friend there is an endless tendency to exchange information, feelings and associations.”
“We Don’t Travel in Such a Linear Way Anymore.”
While roaming Europe and Asia, Mr. Tokarczuk kept a logbook of her experiences but decided it was impossible to write a linear book of memoirs about traveling. “I realized that we don’t travel in such a linear way anymore but rather jump from one point to another and back again,” she said. “So I got this idea for a ‘constellation’ novel recounting experiences that were separate from each other but could still be connected on different psychological, physical and political levels.”
Ms. Tokarczuk likened herself to a tailor making a dress. “The dress is beautiful and comfortable to wear,” she said. “But like the reader, the person who wears it is not expected to know precisely how all the materials that make it are connected.” When Ms. Tokarczuk finished writing “Flights” she gathered all her pages and spent a week studying them spread out on the floor of her living room. “It was funny because I had to climb onto a table to see how they looked from a high vantage point,” she said. “I trusted my intuition to find the book’s order, and I wouldn’t change anything now.”
“Flights” is narrated by a nameless female traveler who is not so unlike the author herself. “The narrator is partly me and sometimes something more than me,” Ms. Tokarczuk said.
As part of her research for “Flights” she enrolled at a university in Amsterdam to study the history of anatomy. Her narrator is obsessed by “trailing the errors and blunders of creation.” So naturally “Flights” is full of fascinating excursions to dusty waxwork museums and laboratories where flayed bodies and anomalous human life-forms are on display.
More Translations of Her Books Are Planned
If there is a central character in “Flights” then it is the human body, which is built to suffer. “It’s a very delicate vehicle that we have to travel through the world with and through time,” Ms. Tokarczuk said. In “Flights” “the bodies in motion” often belong to those on the fragile margins of society: an alcoholic ferry conductor with a penchant for “Moby Dick,” or a frantic single mother who decides to abandon her home and child. “This is something you can find in my other books too,” Ms. Tokarczuk said. “Reality is like a doughnut: Everything that is good and funny and juicy is outside the center, which is just emptiness.”
Since “Flights” won the Man Booker prize, Fitzcarraldo has begun to ramp up other translations of Ms. Tokarczuk’s books. Foremost among these is “The Books of Jacob,” another winner of the Nike Award, which is scheduled to be released in Britain, in an English-language translation by Ms. Croft, in August 2019. This historical novel exploring the life of Jacob Frank, the Polish leader of a heretical Jewish splinter group that converted to Islam and then Catholicism, ranges nomadically across the Hapsburg and Ottoman Empires. Its message of tolerance caused a certain amount of consternation when it was published in Poland in 2014.
“It’s about the freedom of not only changing the places you live in but also your culture and identity,” Ms. Tokarczuk said of her latest novel. “I think the deepest level of our freedom is being able to change our identity.”