Well … it’s quite interesting and as a whole rather fun, I suppose although there are difficult parts. It is certainly a very different kind of novel.
The premise is that a young woman, our main 1st person narrator, is traveling the world over a long period of time. She does what she can or what she is involved with as she’s a kind of 21st century nomad. Her main interests seem to be the psychology of travel and collecting stories about people whom she sometimes meets but might even invent. And then she relates the stories to us in 116 little “chapters” or vignettes. But although the story is not linear, she and her life seem to change over time – if you can figure out who “she” is.
by Olga Tokarczuk
(translated by Jennifer Croft)
2018 / 416 pages
read by Julia Whealan – 12h 32m
rating: 9 / contemp. fiction
(read and listened)
They’re weird stories, ranging from one sentence in length to a couple of short stories. They’re sometimes very realistic but other times more like myths and maybe about magical things and mysticism, but never quite spiritualism. Some are historical. They concern our bodies and senses and even psychologies as related to travel of various sorts (see the title?)
The structure seems to be based on the nature of flying. It goes from one place to another to yet another and then back to the first place. The reader/traveler is simply transported so the overall story arc is definitely non-linear.
The narrator and characters sometimes travel by ferry or cruise ship, sometimes by bus or train as well as on foot and, of course, airplane. The book is about travel as much as anything – a kind of fictional travelogue pointing out the humans and their stories rather than the sites. The narrator calls her journeys “pilgrimages” and says they all involve another pilgrim.
There do seem to be connecting threads between some of the chapter/stories though. The anatomies of people, living or dead, is a definite theme.
The parts about the 17th century anatomist Philip Verheyen include a fascinating discussion of pain and where it comes from. And a couple of other stories are about historical anatomists, their family and friends, although I think most of the characters are fictional – at least partly.
Josephine Soliman, the daughter of Angel Soliman, is also tragically historical as is her father and Francis I of Austria of whom Josephine begs a Christian burial for her father. Captain James Cook is definitely historical as are Chopin and his heart.
There is some discussion of heaven and souls, but it’s always kind of flat and dealing with imagined tangible and physical aspects or presented as myth and things other people believe.
Somehow I am reminded of Ryszard Kapuściński, the Polish travel writer who also, like Tokarczuk, escaped Poland to travel and write as soon as the law permitted – 1989?
Parts sound like they are autobiographical, especially because parts are very much like Tokarczuk’s life, (New York Times) but one section is told from 3rd person points of view and yet it seems like the “She” involved is the “I” in other places. And in a way even the very first story totally fits.