It’s not a novel exactly” muses Kirkus Reviews regarding Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights. “It’s not even a collection of intertwined short stories. . . . this is a series of fragments tenuously linked by the idea of travel—through space and also through time—and a thoughtful, ironic voice.”
The border between novel and not a novel is nebulous. And the definition of the term is by no means static. There is no checklist to follow, nor is the designation something achieved and bestowed upon a text like a laurel. A novel is something you recognize as if it were an old friend, or foe, whose face is unique and irreproducible.
Novel, the adjective, means new, and novel, the noun, refers to an “invented prose narrative that is usually long and complex and deals especially with human experience through a usually connected sequence of events” (Merriam-Webster, italics mine). Notice Merriam-Webster’s soft commitment to their own definition.
A novel is a written work of art. But what is art? Karl Ove Knausgaard once wrote that “art is something that cannot be done again.” If this is true, describing a novel as “not a novel exactly” is the quickest way for readers to recognize it as such, however ironic it may be.
To Live is To Move
It is in us to make order out of disorder, to make familiar the unfamiliar. In the same way we draw lines across the map to differentiate one town from the next, so we have made lines to categorize forms of writing. And Flights by Olga Tokarczuk, translated by Jennifer Croft, is all about travelling—walking, driving, flying, and sailing—across those boundaries. In sum, this book is a marvelous tapestry of humanity in motion.
The book is made up of 116 entries. And while there are a few stories dropped and continued a few, or a few hundred, pages later, most have no narrative connection to each other. Tokarczuk’s narrator leads readers along a thematic journey whose vehicle is her stream of encyclopedic consciousness. The narrator traverses the boundaries of form and content, and just as the subject matter is on movement so the form itself moves.
Like any good book, this book seeks to discover and reveal truth about humanity. But this quest is such a priority for this novel that even its characters pursue it. In their search for meaning, characters wield everything from suitcases to scalpels. And, just as a friendly warning, no topic is excluded from the narrator’s intense, unashamed gaze.
Despite its eclecticism, human movement is the overt, essential theme of this novel (hence the title Flights). And its thesis is clear, simple, and needed: to live is to move. And this is the truth. When we move to new spaces, whether from one country, age, employer, assumption, habit, level of maturity, or life situation to another, we find proof that we are living.
The Christian life models this truth. Our faith is about God’s loving movement toward us while we were dead in our sins, which brought us life. And what is the key indicator of that life? Movement toward Christ.
James says faith that has not produced works is dead. And Herman Bavinck wrote, “God alone is absolute being, the ‘I will be who I will be,’ but all creatures . . . are subject to the law of becoming” (82).
To live is to move. The question is not whether you are a traveler, but what kind of traveler you are. Are you a wanderer or a pilgrim? You are becoming something, are you striving toward a goal or are you involuntarily, or voluntarily, lost?
A recurring voice in Flights refers to some entries of the book as a pilgrimage. She often says, “Each of my pilgrimages aims at some other pilgrim.” And so what I previously called entries should perhaps be called footsteps.
This is why I love this book: Tokarczuk suggests humans are pilgrims. Movement (in a geographic and allegorical sense) is our defining feature. So to discover truth about humanity, it is vital we study ourselves amid travel. On this point, Togarczuk said this in an interview:
Our travelling process is not linear. Therefore, the most realistic way to narrate travelling would be to reflect on this frenzy and chaos that it could be captured by means of a “constellation novel.” This concept could be illustrated by how we look at the night sky, where we see bright points dispersed at random. Our minds, however, perceive chaos in the sky as a form of some type, as a kind of orderly structure. These structures aren’t objectively there. We project this order onto the sky.
I appreciate Tokarczuk’s observation that we do not move in a perfect linear fashion. This, mixed with her use of gazing at the stars as an analogy for our tendency to provide ourselves with order, is an allusion to the poet Dante, whose Divine Comedy provides one of the greatest representations of the Christian life as a pilgrimage. In one sense, Dante traveled in a straight line—from the inferno, to purgatory, to paradise. But if you’ve read the story, you know each of those places consists of circles, growing smaller and smaller as you approach the center.
So, Dante pilgrimage was linear and circular. It was an upward spiral. While there was great repetition and toil in his journey, his journey was overall fruitful. The Christian life is this way; it is both repetitive and redemptive. To quote Iain M. Duguid’s The Whole Armor of God (Crossway, 2019):
We often seem to go round and round in circles, sinning in precisely the same ways as so often before, failing to grow in the least in endurance and faith. Hope encourages us by reminding us of the greater realities to come. On the day of Christ Jesus, God will bring to completion the good work he has begun in us (Phil. 1:6). He has promised it, and he is faithful, even when we are not. (83)
Tokarczuk knows about Dante. She knows that at the end of each of The Divine Comedy‘s parts—Inferno, Purgatory, Paradise—the poet looks to the stars for his reminder that God provides order to all things. When Dante looked to the stars, he saw God’s faithfulness and sovereignty. When Tokarczuk looks to the stars, she sees humanity’s subjectivity.
Now I must point out that she is not wrong about that. I completely agree with her that humans have the great ability to construct fake order where there is none to be found. And it is essential for every Christian to deconstruct those places in your life where you have made a false structure in a place where God has meant for there to be mystery. You must!
But I also want to offer a counterpoint to Tokarczuk’s decadent nihilism. And to do so, I will summarize and respond to one of the 116 entries from this book, sharing how I might re-write it.
As I have said, this book refers to itself as a pilgrimage. This is an important word because it implies that humanity is moving toward a goal and that the goal is something to be worshiped. Consider then this entry, near the end of the book, called “Wall.”
Here’s an excerpt:
Here there are some who believe that we have reached the end of our journey. . . . Beware, all pilgrims, tourists, and wanderers who have made it this far. . . . At the center of the labyrinth there’s neither treasure nor a minotaur you’ll have to fight in battle; the road ends suddenly with a wall–white like the whole city, tall, impossible to climb. Supposedly this is the wall of some invisible temple, but facts are facts–we’ve reached the end, there’s nothing past this now. . . . It’s time to go back. (363-64)
In this entry, Tokarczuk’s narrator finds the place that should mean the end of her travels. It should mean fulfillment of hope, explanation of all mystery, and the proof of the meaning she had sensed was real all along. But it is just a wall.
In Kafkaesque fashion, this entry says the place we most want to go is restricted. In Post-modern style, it says the meaning that may have once existed has long since vanished, leaving behind physical ruins that can sustain only a hollow belief.
Tokarczuk is not the first person to feel this way about the world. There have been many writers before her, and there will be many after too, who feel like there must be meaning in this life, there must be a purpose, but whatever it is either died or was permanently sealed. No matter how we traveled there, we cannot access it.
And this is why the gospel is so precious, so beautiful. Listen, the gospel is not, “There is no wall.” That’s not the gospel. There is a wall that separates us from what we long for, which is to go home, back into harmony with our Creator. The wall was put up due to sin, to protect the unholy from the holy.
The gospel does not say, “Shame on you for not making it over the wall.” Nor does it say, “You can make it over the wall if you try really really hard.” No, the gospel is good news because it’s the account of how the God inside the wall came outside the wall, so that pilgrims may enter in through Him. It’s the story of how perfection took on imperfection, died to pay for it, and rose to redeem it.
So, if were to recast Tokarczuk’s wall to reflect what I know to be true, I’d at least add a door (John 10:9).