Olga Tokarczuk: Bieguni (Flights)
The Polish title of the book – Bieguni – means something like runners and refers to a sect of the Old Believers called, in Russian, Бегуны, hence Bieguni in Polish. They believed that they had to continually run away and hide from the “anti-Christian” authorities.
What this novel is about is more complicated. Firstly, it is not a novel in the traditional sense of having a main plot, a few minor plots and one or more fictional characters throughout the book. Instead, it takes the form of a series of chapters of varying length, which have varying functions. Some tell stories, sometimes incomplete, some introduce us to the narrator and her life, many describe her travels in various parts of the world, with some describing isolated and often minor incidents on these travels, some outline her travel philosophy (her term, not mine), others delve into history and quite a few deal with biological and anatomical oddities.
The longest chapters are stories and, excluding the historical ones, there are relatively few of these. One of the first involves a man called Kunicki who travels to the island of Vis with his wife and three-year old son. They stop by the roadside and wife and son head into what looks like an olive grove, while he, feeling tired, stays in the car. They do not return. He goes looking for them and cannot find them. As the locals tell him, it is a small island and no-one can disappear here but they have. It is not for a long while later in the book that the story continues.
There are other stories including Eryk the strange whaler but the one most relevant to the title is set in Moscow. Annushka is married with a son, Petya. Petya is an adult but seems to have a very unpleasant disease – we are not given any details – and she has to care for him. One day a week, her mother-in-law takes her place, while Annushka goes shopping, picks up Petya’s prescriptions and so on.
One day, while out shopping, she notices a strange shrouded woman who seems to be standing there, apparently loudly cursing. She sees her on other occasions and eventually approaches her. It seems this woman is from a sect and that sect is presumably the Bieguni of the title. Annushka gradually becomes more involved with her.
We have learned something of the biography of the narrator. Her parents liked travelling but they weren’t real travellers: they left in order to return but, as she says, that life is not for me. In short, she likes travelling.
She studied psychology at university. Here we were taught that the world could be described, and even explained, by means of simple answers to intelligent questions. That in its essence the world was inert and dead, governed by fairly simple laws . but adds if there’s one thing I know now, it’s that anyone looking for order ought to steer clear of psychology altogether.
As a result she did various odd jobs and started writing. However, she states, anyone who has ever tried to write a novel knows what an arduous task it is, undoubtedly one of the worst ways of occupying oneself, so she is writing about her travels. The chronicles of my travels would in fact be chronicles of an ailment.
Her ailment is Recurrent Detoxification Syndrome – the insistence of one’s consciousness on returning to certain images, or even the compulsive search for them. My set of symptoms revolves around my being drawn to all things spoiled, flawed, defective, broken.
As mentioned above, she does seem to be attracted to biological and anatomical oddities and visits (often obscure) museums which display such things. Some of these are described but one area in which she seems to very interested in is plastination, a technique or process used in anatomy to preserve bodies or body parts.
We learn of key experts on plastination and the general preservation of bodies and body parts, including following their stories (both historical and fictitious) and the story of Angelo Soliman, a black man living in Austria who was stuffed and put on display after his death, with his daughter objecting strenuously.
She goes beyond both plastination and body stuffing. We follow, for example, the story of Philip Verheyen, a famous Flemish anatomist. While she does describe his work in that area, she takes particular interest in his phantom pain. He had had part of his leg amputated because of an infection but continues to get severe pain in the part of his leg he no longer has.
Her comments on language are most interesting. I mentioned above the story of Eryk. He came from an unnamed Communist country but ended up in the English-speaking world. He had been in prison and had learned English here – from Moby Dick. As a result he would curse baroquely.
She mentions the fact that people like her only ever use English when we travel, and then only in foreign countries, to foreign people. However she goes on to pity English speakers as there is a very good chance that when they are speaking, they will be generally understood by everyone else but with Poles, for example, relatively few people outside Poland will speak Polish so they can easily have confidential conversations. I would qualify this by saying that a) English speakers are generally aware of this and b) some people assume that others do not understand their language so speak freely in front of them. I have eavesdropped on quite a few conversations this way.
She has many thoughts on travel, which she discusses. Why and how we travel, airports, train vs plane, sleeper trains, guide books, lectures at airports, channel surfing in hotel, the fact we are now digital citizens
Travel philosophy comes up when she tells us about airport lectures, i.e. lectures given in airport to passengers waiting for planes. She cites one example, where the lecture is, indeed, on travel philosophy. However, she herself makes many comments that fall under that heading.
There’s too much in the world. It would be wiser to reduce it, she says, though clearly she has seen a lot. She prefers to be anonymous when she travels, shunning fellow Poles and falling off the radar as much as possible. Mobility is reality, she says and then mentions that it is merely an ad for mobile phones. There are numerous pithy comments about travel and short stories illustrating the variety of travel.
Each of my pilgrimages aims at some other pilgrim is her general comment on travel but she concludes by saying I entered into a phase that travel psychologists refer to as ‘I Don’t Know Where I Am’. I’d wake up totally disoriented. It Doesn’t Matter Where I Am, it makes no difference. I’m here.
As an enthusiastic traveller, I really enjoyed this book. However it is bitty and may not be to everyone’s taste, particularly if you are looking for a more conventional novel. However, if you get into the spirit of the book and Tokarczuk’s intentions in writing it, you will find it a highly rewarding work, well deserving of its high reputation.
First published 2007 by Wydawnictwo Literackie
First English translation 2017 by Fitzcarraldo
Translated by Jennifer Croft