“A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike.” (John Steinbeck)

This is my second post for Women in Translation Month (WITMonth) hosted by Meytal at Biblibio, and I’m hoping its also a sign that my blogging slump is coming to an end – fingers crossed! This week I’ve chosen two books linked by the theme of travel.

Firstly, Flights by Olga Tokarczuk (2007, trans. Jennifer Croft 2017) which won the International Man Booker Prize last year.

Flights is quite a hard book to review, as it’s aptly titled and resists being pinned down in any way. It’s fiction, non-fiction, essay, philosophical musing, travelogue, digression… yet this fragmentary style still holds together and works as a whole. The unity is found through the recurring themes of travel, movement, restless and flight; and also of the human body at its most visceral – the collection of bone, muscle, skin and blood that enables human locomotion.

“A thing in motion will always be better than a thing at rest; that change will always be a nobler thing than permanence; that which is static will degenerate and decay, turn to ash, while that which is in motion is able to last for all eternity.”

The fiction sections include a man whose wife and son disappear when they are on holiday in Croatia; the wife of an elderly professor who is taken ill on a cruise; a woman who leaves her young family to live on the streets… all in perpetual motion. There are also historical sections looking at the fate of Chopin’s heart; the first naming of the Achilles tendon; cadaver preservation techniques, among other bodily concerns. The focus on the organic reality of living stops Flights from becoming too flighty, grounding all the fragments in a corporeal existence.

The consistent voice also ties these different pieces together, the sense that we are being told these stories, historical fragments and observations by the same narrator, a female traveller. She sets the focus on travel as she describes the airports, planes, buses and terminals she finds herself waiting in, and her conversations with those who cross her path:

“She says that sedentary peoples, farmers, prefer the pleasures of circular time, in which every object and event must return to its own beginning, curl back up into an embryo and repeat the process of maturation and death. But nomads and merchants, as they set off on journeys, had to think up a different time for themselves, that would better respond to the needs of their travels. That time was linear time.”

Flights is a book you can dip into or read in a linear fashion. I did the latter and I’m glad I did as I could pick up the echoes across the different narratives that give a sense of unity to the book and to the world it evokes. However, it could work just as well by reading a section and focussing closely on it, as Tokarczuk’s writing is so rich. She has described her style as one of constellations, and the reason behind this individual approach is noted in Flights:

“Constellation, not sequencing, carries truth.”

Not a book for when you want a good meaty plot, but I still found it a compulsive read as well as a thought-provoking one.

 

Secondly, The Expedition to the Baobab Tree by Wilma Stockenstrom (1981, trans. JM Coetzee 1983) which is set in South Africa and so forms another stop on my Around the World in 80 Books reading challenge, hosted by Hard Book Habit.

I felt a bit conflicted when I started this: the story of a young slave girl told by a white South African was problematic for me. I looked on Goodreads and no-one else seemed to have this issue. Then I thought that at the time of writing, when black South African voices were so thoroughly suppressed, maybe writing this was a huge political statement.

(I once attended a debate about queer/transgender stories being staged. One side felt only those who identified as queer/trans should tell those stories. The other side felt it was fine for straight/cis artists to tell such stories so long as they did their research and the resulting art was sensitive. The wider issue is something I often come back to and think about, and something I’m still thinking through, as I did with this novella.)

The Expedition to the Baobab Tree is beautifully written and certainly a sensitive portrayal of a woman finding autonomy for the first time as she lives in the hollow of the titular tree on the southern African veld.

“I know the interior of my tree as a blind man knows his home, I know its flat surfaces and grooves and swellings and edges, its smell, its darknesses, its great crack of light […] I can say: this is mine. I can say: this is I. These are my footprints.”

The woman has ended up stranded in the veld as a doomed commercial expedition by her last owner has failed spectacularly. With no-one making demands on her for the first time, the woman is free to think and reflect:

“If I could write, I would take up a porcupine quill and scratch your enormous belly full from top to bottom. I would clamber up as far as your branches and carve notches in your armpits to make you laugh. Big letters. Small letters. In a script full of lobes and curls, in circumambient lines I write round and round you, for I have so much to tell of a trip to a new horizon that became an expedition to a tree.”

Like Flights, The Expedition to the Baobab Tree is not a straight narrative. It moves back and forth in time, with no named places or persons, It has an almost hallucinatory quality – and the narrator may be hallucinating at times, given her exposure and lack of food –  but this never detracts from the horrors she has experienced. There are times she was treated well, but she was also repeatedly assaulted, raped, and had all her children taken as babies. We are the witnesses to her experience, recounted poetically but unflinchingly.

“One time I fled from the tree. I ran aimlessly into the veld, trying to get out of its sight by hiding behind a high round rock, and I opened my mouth and I brought out a sound that must be the sound of a human being because I am a human being and not a wildebeest […] but a human being that talks and I brought out a sound and produced an accusation and hurled it up at the twilight air.”

This is a short, powerful read with a distinctive female narrator who demands to be heard.

To end, a tenuously-linked 80s video as usual 😉 Well, the title offers travel advice! I’ve chosen it especially for Kate as she’s seeing a-ha soon:

18 thoughts on ““A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike.” (John Steinbeck)

  1. I’ve read Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead which I enjoyed but Flights sounds very different. I know what you mean about responding to books written in a very different political time and climate. It can be very uncomfortable, can’t it, but understanding the context helps.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’d like to read Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead. I’ve read an interview with her where she says she tried to do something different each time, so I think her work is quite varied.

      Yes, context helps a lot with reading. I try and find a balance between knowing that and still approaching a book as freshly as possible!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. You know, I’ve seen lots of positive feedback about Flights over the past couple of years without having any real understanding of what the book is about. I think you’ve described it very well, in a way that seems pitched at just the right level – enough to give us a feel for the form and connecting themes without getting too bogged down in the details. It does sound very impressive indeed!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Lovely post, Madame B – hope the blogging slump is coming to an end. “Flights” is a marvellous read, if hard to categorise as you say. But I just got swept away by it and couldn’t stop reading. “Drive your plow…” is pretty amazing too. I share your nervousness about books written about things/people the author isn’t involved in, but then remind myself that we shouldn’t limit the writer’s imagination – otherwise what we read would be very dull and factual (except if it was about modern day politics, when we would just refuse to believe it….). Ahem. Sorry.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Kaggsy! I really enjoyed Flights and its very readable as you say, which can be hard to achieve with a fragmentary structure. I’m definitely keen to read ‘Drive Your Plow…’ now.

      Yes, you’re right, there shouldn’t be limits on imagination. I think we need to make sure that marginalised voices are able to access circumstances for expression too, so that its not only those in positions of privilege who get the imaginative opportunities & acknowledgement. Easy for me to say…

      Never any need to apologise for political despairing – its my default position now 😦

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Thanks for the a-ha clip 😀

    The whole question of who can tell a story is such a fraught one. I think it’s excellent that we are all more aware of this issue now but I do wonder where it ends? i.e. do we get to the point where we say men can’t write women and vice versa? Lionel Shriver started a huge debate about this a few years ago when she wore a sombrero… I thought about it again when I read Middlesex by Eugenides – the female voices in that book did not feel authentic at all to me. My ‘conclusion’ at the time was about authenticity – if I’m reading a male author writing a female character and it is am authentic voice, then I’m fine with that. I stretch that rule to other elements – if I read a British author writing about Melbourne and it was authentic, fine. I guess the bottom line is write about what you know.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, I think if someone has done their research and really made the effort to know what they’re writing about, then it will feel authentic and not gimmicky. Doing the research feels respectful in that way.

      The Lionel Shriver thing grabbed media attention but really wasn’t helpful. Although I agree with her that writers should write about whatever they want, she has to recognise her position of enormous privilege. She seems to dismiss the fact that writers who haven’t had the same advantages as her because they are marginalised in some way might not so readily be given opportunities to share their stories. I’m glad she causes debate but I also think its arrogant of her not to recognise that side of what she’s arguing. It is a really fraught question!

      Always happy to oblige with a-ha 🙂 Morten makes my blog look pretty…

      Liked by 1 person

    • I hope you enjoy Flights when you get to it Ali 🙂

      It’s actually good to hear you would have shared my discomfort – looking on Goodreads I began to wonder if it was only me and whether I was missing something!

      Like

  5. Such an interesting post, Madame B, thank you! I had a library copy of Flights a few months ago, but had to take it back unread. When I skimmed the first few pages, I realised that it would need considered reading time (which I did not then have), rather than just a canter through. I’m galvanised by your review to make sure I carve out that proper reading time so that I can give it another go.

    It’s an important and difficult point about ‘voice’. I think I am generally in the camp of not minding who writes about what – after all, if an unheard story gets told that way, it allows for debate and exposure, even if the discussion is around the inappropriateness of whatever the author has tried to do.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Liz! I hope you enjoy Flights when you get to it. I think your impression was correct, it does need consideration. Having said that, once you get into it, it does flow really well which is so impressive considering the fragmentary nature and lack of overarching plot.

      I hadn’t considered the controversy around voice in that way, but of course you’re right – if it goes badly wrong then the discussion around why/how its wrong helps to highlight the issues, what is lacking and what needs to be in place for respectful, sensitive writing.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I really hate the idea that only people with a specific life experience should be able to write about it. It’s a new and very restrictive concept. Imagnation and thinking yourself into the life of the other is one of the joys of reading, and should be encouraged in writing too, I believe. People who read widely and often will soon find themselves able to recognise what feels authentic and sensitive and what feels exploitative. Anyway, who would write the books about life on Mars if we obey that rule? All women would only be able to have female characters, and I’ve already read Herland and have had enough of that idea, thank you very much! 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, I definitely don’t think writers should only write about their experience, it would be a very dull reading life indeed! The reason I hesitated here was that someone who – however much they may have objected to it personally – was privileged by a system of oppression, was choosing to write from the perspective of the oppressed. I’ve not really been able to find out much about her, but given it was the 1980s I did wonder if writing it was an act of resistance. I didn’t feel the central character was exoticised or patronised, hers was a beautifully erudite voice.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Thanks for the review on Flights – makes it very enticing. A-ha is a bit Top Gun isn’t it? I’ve just read a book called Never Anyone but You by Rupert Thomson. It’s about two real life lesbians Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore. It was excellent and the sex/sexuality of the writer didn’t cross my mind because I was enjoying it so much! So I think it depends a lot on the writer and if they’re good enough at shifting their skins, so to speak and that comes down to depth of creative imagination coupled with the ability to write. I know as a writer there are certain subjects i wouldn’t go near through fear of getting it very very wrong and I think all writers probably have that.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m glad I’ve made Flights enticing – its a really interesting read! The a-ha thing is a bit Top Gunny isn’t it? I suppose it was of the age… a cheesey age with too many flying jackets 😀

      I think if a writer is skilled and imaginative, then you’re right, it goes a long way. And having the sensitivity to know when perhaps it isn’t their story to tell, for fear of getting it wrong, as you said. Never Anyone But You sounds good – I will look out for it!

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Stockenström‘s book sounds quite interesting. The debate about whether or not someone’s allowed to tell a certain story is getting more and more heated. At times I find it absurd. So, in theory, men shouldn’t write the perspective of women, women without children not about mothers? The key word, as you say, is sensitive. It shouldn’t be exploitive in any way. Sorry you went through a blogging slump. I was absent myself, so didn’t notice.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Stockenstrom’s book is interesting, it’s a very poetic style but it doesn’t lose the tension of the story, it’s really well done.

      Yes, what I keep coming back to is that sensitivity is the key thing.

      I hope you’re enjoying your return to blogging 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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