“Describing something is like using it -it destroys; the colours wear off, the corners lose their definition, and in the end what’s been described begins to fade, to disappear.”
I love this quote, for reasons that, in a manner rather paradoxical, will hopefully become clearer as I describe them. The quote is (one of dozens more that caused me to ponder) from Olga Tokarczuk’s InternationalMan Booker Prize winning novel, ‘Flights’. A book I have tried (and always feeling as though I have failed) to successfully describe to people on several occasions, each time, explaining that it is a novel of fragmented parts, fleeting narratives, some of them purely fictional others rooted in fact, told across different times and by different people with many of them taking place or being linked by moments in in-between places, such as airports and train stations. The transitionary spaces we are when nothing is happening or something is waiting to happen -what do people think and do in those moments and in those places? Like eating a bag of pick and mix sweets, each time you reach into the bag you reveal a different flavour, shape or colour to try. However, as the quote from the book itself explains, it seems futile to attempt to summarise the diversity of places, thoughts and ideas in which this book took me. You may totally disagree, no two readers would read this the same, which is plenty reason itself for giving it a try!
When I am enjoying reading a book, I like to make notes, notes of quotes I find interesting or ideas which resonate with things I have spoken to people about, places I’ve been or other anecdotal connections of a personal nature that mean something. Over the years I have built up a little library of these quotes, many of them are funny, some could be described as quite profound and some are purely incidental but in little ways, they reaffirm what it means to exist, what it means to be me. I found myself doing this a LOT whilst reading ‘Flights’. From a description of an airport as being like its own city, a dialogue about Dark Matter to series of facts listed off the packaging of sanitary pads in which we learn, “The word lethologica describes the state of being unable to recall the word you’re looking for.”
Afterwards I like to read reviews of what bits other people picked up upon, wondering if others were drawn to the same passages of text as me. A review of the book by Tom McAllister in The Washington Post also picked-up on the quote about ‘describing things’ and I suppose the paradox for me came in the irony of wanting to describe and share why I liked this book, whilst the book itself drawing attention to the notion that sometimes describing does not do a thing/place justice. Ephemerality of the moment or ‘lived experience’ versus the permanence of ‘description’ being a theme alluded to in many of the stories throughout the novel; expectation versus reality. Tokarczuk trained as a psychologist and her experience in this field is drawn-upon in how she captures the thoughts and inner monologues of her characters with analytical, believable honesty. Part of the reason I write this blog is because of the challenge posed in trying to articulate in words, to describe how I feel about art I have seen or experienced. It continues to be something of personal interest.
The book begins with a narrative about travelling and waiting in airports, in which the narrator's internal monologue recalls a memory about a visit to look at cabinets of curiosities rather than an art gallery. It is a fitting comparison to the construction of the novel's structure (or lack of) being like a cabinet of curiosities; a man searches for his missing family whilst on holiday in Croatia, a woman walks out on her family to live life during the day as a beggar, an anatomist in the 17th Century dissects his amputated leg, Chopin’s daughter transports his heart from Paris back to Warsaw…It is the sort of book that really does not lend itself well to description as it sounds messy and eclectic. To begin with I wondered if I was reading it correctly, whether I had missed something and as it progressed, I wondered whether I was supposed to understand how it all threaded together or have an inkling to where it may be heading; the fact was I didn’t have a clue! Though I was enjoying the journey and individual pieces of this patchwork tale and I had to learn to let go of my anxiety that I did not grasp the bigger threads or meaning that was happening.
Ropography, we learn, “…is a painting term for the attention the artist pays to trifles and details.” Another reference within the book that mirrors much of what is happening within the book itself and in example echoed in a fantastic chapter towards the end of the book (page 403 in my paperback edition) titled, ‘The Origin of the Species’ in which invading airborne anemones reveals itself to be plastic bags. As an environmental comment it could easily stand alone from the whole book as a separate piece of prose. It sounds utterly random and banal, which it is, but is beautifully written and intelligently translated from Polish to English by Jennifer Croft. The reader is left to chart and make their own connections to other parts within the book, create their own meanings as they see fit. In this aspect reading this book reminded me a lot of the process of interpreting art and for that reason I enjoyed it immensely. Regular visitors or those familiar with my work will also know that the everyday and banal is something of an ongoing obsession of mine. The descriptions of cadavers and embalming fluids and some of the dark humour of this book may not be to everyone’s taste but it is counterbalanced by the allure for the sense of the whimsical and chaotic unknown, “The things that exist in the shadows of consciousness, and that, when you do take a look, dart out of your field of vision.”
If you only read one book in 2019, make it this!