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Thoughts on the 2018 Man Booker International Prize winner

Thoughts on the 2018 Man Booker International Prize winner

So Olga Tokarczuk and Flights, translated by Jennifer Croft and published by Fitzcarraldo Editions, it is. Lisa Appignanesi and her fellow judges – Michael Hofmann, Hari Kunzru, Tim Martin and Helen Oyeyemi – have picked the Polish novelist's book above the Man Booker International Prize's five other shortlistees. The Bookseller recently called Tokarczuk “one of the greatest living writers you have never heard of”. That will now undoubtedly change.

Tokarczuk (pronounced “Tok-ar-chook”) certainly gave the judges a superabundance of material. The flights of her title are nothing if not picaresque: among them the imaginative anatomical flights of 17th-century Dutchman Philip Verheyen, who dissected and drew his own amputated gangrenous leg; the bodily flight of an 18th-century North African slave turned Austrian courtier who is stuffed and displayed after his death on account of his blackness; the bizarre journey taken by Chopin’s heart from Paris to Warsaw, hidden beneath his sister Ludwika’s skirt in a glass jar; and the spiritual and geographical travels of a contemporary Polish woman returned to Poland from emigration to New Zealand in order to euthanise her terminally ill high-school sweetheart. And there are other narratives of travel and anatomy too, flights between life and death, and a myriad digressions.

Tokarczuk's wide-ranging and essayistic style has been likened to, among others, W.G. Sebald and shares a certain mitteleuropa feel for the movement and fluidity of peoples and their history and, as with Sebald, the pages are littered with illustrations. The unconnected tales in Flights suggest that we are all connected, not least by anatomy, however dispersed we are and that the human condition in the modern age is to be a nomad. Tokarczuk has her own word for her discursive stories: “constellation fiction”.

Flights was first published in Poland in 2007 as Bieguni and won both the reader prize and the jury prize of the 2008 Nike Award, Poland's most prestigious literary prize. A decade later, after its translation into English by the American polyglot Jennifer Croft (she also works in Polish, Spanish and Ukrainian), it has scooped the Man Booker International. Indeed, in 2015, just before starting work on the book, Croft gave a prescient interview in which she described Flights as “really beautiful, really brilliant, really compelling… and I think it was definitely her best book up until that point” (Croft also translated Tokarczuk's later The Books of Jacob which also won the Nike Award).

Tokarczuk may be one of the most celebrated writers in Poland but she has attracted controversy too. Her pan-nationalism and liberal attitude to refugees and suggestion that Poland  had committed “horrendous acts” of colonisation in the past led to her being called a  “targowiczanin” – traitor – by the Patriots association in her home town, Nowa Ruda, who claimed she had tarnished Poland's good name. Their call was picked up by a senator of the Law and Justice Party, who said that her books and statements are in “absolute contradiction to the assumptions of the Polish historical politics”. Tokarczuk responded that her open-mindedness towards non-Poles is a truer reflection of the Polish mentality than that of her accusers. Her publisher nevertheless had to hire bodyguards to protect her: “I was very naive,” she said, “I thought we’d be able to discuss the dark areas in our history.” As with David Grossman, last year's Man Booker International winner, she is unafraid to rattle cages in defence of what she believes to be right.

Such controversies should come as no surprise since Tokarczuk has a lively history. A child of the 1968 generation – her parents were teachers who “lived in an island of left-wing intellectuals, but were not communists” – she herself trained as a psychologist but stopped practicing when “I was working with one of my patients and realised I was much more disturbed than he was.” She took to writing instead: her interest in Freud and Jung nevertheless had taught her a useful lesson for a novelist: “every tiny thing you did had a deeper meaning . . .” She still keeps her dreadlocked hairstyle (a plica polonica, or “Polish tangle”, rather than a Rastafarian borrowing) and Green politics that hint at her provenance. And like many of the characters in Flights she has travelled widely, living in Taiwan, Malaysia, New Zealand, as well as an isolated region of Lower Silesia she calls home.

She recently ascribed the distinctiveness of her writing to a fundamental difference in approach between novelists in east and west Europe. “We don’t trust reality as much as you do,” she has said. “Reading English novels I always adore the ability to write without fear about inner psychological things that are so delicate. In such a form you can develop a story in a very linear way, but we don’t have this patience. We feel that in every moment something must be wrong because our own story wasn’t linear. . . We’re still thinking in a mythical, religious way.”

It is perhaps that mythical thinking that gives Flights its potent but appealing strangeness and what makes it a novel that stands out from the norm. And now it has helped her win the Man Booker International Prize too.