Potential barriers to free movement loom everywhere these days — in the unknowns of the European Union post-Brexit, in the shadows of a United States-Mexico border wall, in the backlash against refugees and immigrants from here to Indonesia. Around the world, loud and powerful voices are speaking up to keep “their people” in and “other people” out.
It is an unsettling atmosphere, and one that makes the American publication of “Flights,” by the Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk, even more welcome and relevant than when it debuted in her native country more than 10 years ago. In 2008 it won Poland’s top literary prize, and this May added the U.K.’s Man Booker International Prize for the translation (by Jennifer Croft).
“Flights” is an expansive, probing and enigmatic novel of ideas. Stylistically it is like a grand, jumbled version of “Milosz’s ABC’s,” the catalog of thoughts, stories and memories by the great Polish poet and intellectual Czeslaw Milosz.
Chapters range from a few sentences to dozens of pages, creating a kaleidoscope of perspectives on the mutability and movement of humanity. Short sections may concern just a word, a person or an idea. Individually they don’t reveal much, but combined, like letters of the alphabet, they express bigger beliefs or thoughts.
Long sections function almost as a short story collection: a woman and child disappear on a Croatian island; a doctor who plasticizes human tissue tries to learn a dead colleague’s secret; a woman plays God with her childhood love.
In Polish, “Flights” was titled “Bieguni,” referring to a nomadic sect that seeks enlightenment in movement. Tokarczuk is at her best and most mysterious when a female bieguni appears, living on the streets and buried in layers of clothes. Her exhortation to flee for salvation is haunting in a world erecting walls: “Sway, go on, move . . . Blessed is he who leaves.”