“Blessed is he who leaves” – “Flights” by Olga Tokarczuk



This year’s Man Booker international prize went to a Polish author, Olga Tokarczuk for Flights. It is an absorbing tale, or rather a collection of tales, devoted to the nomad in everyone of us. More than that, a large part of the novel revolves around the human body, which pulls us towards the ground. These two human instincts – to seek flight and to seek anchor are fundamentally irreconcilable. The Polish title of the book – Bieguni –refers to a fictional Slavic sect of wanderers, who believe that the world is ruled by Antichrist while the real God is in exile. The only way to “avoid the traps of the Antichrist” is to “get on the road”:


“For anything that has a stable place in this world – every country, church,
every human government, everything that has preserved a form in this hell –
is at his command. Everything that is defined, that spans from here to there,
that fits into a framework, is written down in registers, numbered, testified to,
sworn to; everything collected, displayed, labelled. Everything that holds:
houses, chairs, beds, families, earth, sowing, planting, verifying growth.
Planning, awaiting the results, outlining schedules, protecting order. …

Whoever pauses will be petrified, whoever stops, pinned like an insect, his
heart pierced by a wooden needle, his hands and feet drilled through and
pinned into the threshold and the ceiling.

This is why tyrants of all stripes, infernal servants, have such deep-seated
hatred for the nomads – this is why they persecute the Gypsies and the Jews,
and why they force all free peoples to settle, assigning the addresses that
serve as our sentences.
What they want is to create a frozen order, to falsify time’s passage. They
want for the days to repeat themselves, unchanging, they want to build a big
machine where every creature will be forced to take its place and carry out
false actions. Institutions and offices, stamps, newsletters, a hierarchy, and
ranks, degrees, applications and rejections, passports, numbers, cards, election
results, sales and amassing points, collecting, exchanging some things for

What they want is to pin down the world with the aid of barcodes, labelling
all things, letting it be known that everything is a commodity, that this is how
much it will cost you. Let this new foreign language be illegible to humans,
let it be read exclusively by automatons, machines. That way by night, in their
great underground shops, they can organize readings of their own barcoded

Move. Get going. Blessed is he who leaves.”

Olga Tokarczuk, “Flights”, translated by Jennifer Croft

The Panopticon

The above passage seems to be the central, defining moment of the book that nonetheless refuses to be pinned down by definitions. I think the novel can be viewed as a panopticon, which is a building, such as a prison or library, arranged in a way that all parts are visible from a single observation point.  It may well be that the sect of Bieguni are overseeing all the other wandering characters appearing in the book. One story that stayed with me the longest was the plight of a man whose wife disappeared suddenly and without a trace during their family holidays in Croatia. She did not take anything with her, which left him staring hopelessly at her earthly possessions:

“There’s an open pack of sanitary napkins. A pencil, two pens, one a yellow
Bic and the other with ‘Hotel Mercure’ written on the side. Pocket change,
Polish and Euro cents. Her wallet, with Croatian bills in it – not many – and
ten Polish zlotys. Her visa card. A little orange notepad, dirtied at the edges. A
copper pin with some antique-looking pattern, seemingly broken. Two
Kopiko sweets. A camera, digital, with a black case. A peg. A white paper
clip. A golden gum wrapper. Crumbs. Sand.

He lays it all neatly on the black matte countertop, every thing equidistant
from every other thing. He goes up to the sink and drinks some water. He
goes back to the table and lights a cigarette. Then he starts taking pictures
with her camera, each object on its own. He photographs slowly, solemnly,
zooming in as much as possible, with flash.”

Olga Tokarczuk, “Flights”, translated by Jennifer Croft

The cult of relics is present in all religions. Through their relics, the saints were believed to be bodily present. The protagonist’s wife seems to have taken flight; the objects she left are now like holy relics to him.  People who are no longer in our space and who were dear to us inhabit a mysterious new dimension, inaccessible to us. The only connection we have to them are the relics which spin a golden thread between here and there.

Giorgio de Chirico, “The Song of Love”




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11 Responses to “Blessed is he who leaves” – “Flights” by Olga Tokarczuk

  1. Fascinating book. Am presently reading it, slowly.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Amber Foxx says:

    This sounds like an important book. Thank you for this post.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Jeff Japp says:

    “The cult of relics is present in all religions. Through their relics, the saints were believed to be bodily present.” I took a history class in college on Relics, Saints, and Icons. Loved that class. Thanks for the post. Hope you are well.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I would like to point out that Beguny is not a fictional sect, they existed:
    “The Old Believers were divided into many sects, one of the most noteworthy of which was that of the Deniers. The social dogma of the sect was in agreement with the most extreme anarchistic doctrines; the members led a vagabond existence and passed the greater portion of their time in prison. The method of life of the Deniers, their proneness to excesses, and their hatred of existing order made them close relatives to another mystic sect, the Beguny. The members of this cult avoided all obligations which were imposed by state, society, or family; they roam about, living only by begging.”

    Liked by 1 person

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