The Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk had to wait until she was 28 to receive a passport and make her first trip abroad. Like many Poles, Ms. Tokarczuk (pronounced To-KAR-chook) rejoiced when over 40 years of Soviet-induced international isolation finally came to an end. The destination was hardly an exotic one — East Germany in 1990 — but it signaled the beginning of Ms. Tokarczuk’s love affair with travel and a delectable way of writing about it that continues to evolve.
In May, Ms. Tokarczuk won the Man Booker International Prize for her novel “Flights,” which treats travel as a uniquely corporeal experience. “Flights” is made up of 116 vignettes — both fiction and nonfiction — ranging from a Polish man’s desperate search for his wife and child after they disappear during a vacation in Croatia, to a historical account of Chopin’s heart being smuggled into Warsaw beneath his sister’s skirt. Critics have compared Ms. Tokarczuk’s nonlinear novels and short stories, which are often punctuated by mysterious maps and diagrams, to the work of celebrated European authors like W.G. Sebald and Milan Kundera.
With “Flights,” Ms. Tokarczuk, 56, became the first Polish writer to win the British prize which is now awarded annually to a book in English-language translation. The Polish-born British writer Lisa Appiganesi, who chaired the judging, commended Ms. Tokarczuk’s novel for its narrative voice “which moves from wit and gleeful mischief to real emotional texture.” “Flights,” which sold over 160,000 hardcover copies when it was published in Poland in 2007 and won the country’s prestigious Nike Award, is being released in the United States by Riverhead Books on Aug. 14.
A Dozen Years Ago, When the World Was Different
In a recent Skype interview Ms. Tokarczuk said that when she began writing “Flights,” more than a dozen years ago, she set out to describe a world very different from the one we are living in now. “I wrote this book when the world was looking to be open for everybody,” she said. “Now we’re seeing how the European Union will probably become weakened by the policies of countries like Poland and Hungary, which are focused on their borders once again.”
“We Don’t Travel in Such a Linear Way Anymore.”
While roaming Europe and Asia, Ms. Tokarczuk kept a logbook of her experiences but decided it was impossible to write a linear book of memoirs about traveling. “I realized that we don’t travel in such a linear way anymore but rather jump from one point to another and back again,” she said. “So I got this idea for a ‘constellation’ novel recounting experiences that were separate from each other but could still be connected on different psychological, physical and political levels.”