Flights

I just finished Flights by Olga Tokarczuk. I really enjoyed it without really knowing what to make of it. It’s structured in a stream-of-consciousness way, with distinct sections (which aren’t quite chapters) that sometimes relate to what’s come before with a dream logic. Here are some of my favourite sections, or at least a couple that got me thinking.

There are countries where people speak English. But not like us — we have our own languages hidden in our carry-on luggage, in our cosmetics bags, only ever using English when we travel, and then only in foreign countries, to foreign people. It’s hard to imagine, but English is their real language! Oftentimes their only language. They don’t have anything to fall back on or to turn to in moments of doubt.

How lost they must feel in the world, where all instructions, all the lyrics of all the stupidest possible songs, all the menus, all the excruciating pamphlets and brochures — even the buttons in the lift! — are in their private language. They may be understood by anyone at any moment, whenever they open their mouths. They must have to write things down in special codes. Wherever they are, people have unlimited access to them — they are accessible to everyone and everything! I heard there are plans in the works to get them some little language of their own, one of those dead ones no else is using anyway, just so that for once they can have something just for themselves.

— “The Tongue Is The Strongest Muscle”, p183

I’ve felt various things about my only fluent language being the lingua franca of much of the world, but this is the first thing I’ve read that captures what a shallow, wasteful thing it is.

At other times the hall becomes unexpectedly empty, and then the porter flirts with the receptionist, but only absent-mindedly, half-heartedly, remaining at full hotel readiness.

— “Reception At Large Fancy Hotels” p318

This got me thinking: I haven’t seen many strangers flirting with one another out in the world like is described here. If I did I feel like it should be a signal of the world of people thriving, like spring. Some people feel this way watching birds courting one another.

While waiting for the funeral, Fryderyk’s close friends came every evening to his sister’s or to George Sand’s to remember him. They would dine together and exchange the latest society gossip. Those days were strangely peaceful, as though not belonging to the ordinary calendar.

— “Chopin’s Heart” p324

I’ve just come out of the Christmas season. There’s a point in December when the regular rhythm of days fitted neatly to weeks falls apart. It’s replaced by the constant winding up toward Christmas Day and then secondarily, New Year’s Eve. In the intervening days things get listless and confused. You forget how to live according to your routine. The days “as though not belonging to any ordinary calendar” are stuck haphazardly in a stack on the wall next to the year.

In a city in South Asia the vegetarian restaurants are generally indicated with red swastikas, ancient signs of the sun and life force. This makes vegetarians’ lives much easier in a foreign city — all you have to do up and follow that symbol. There they serve vegetable curry (the vegetables vary greatly), pakoras, samosas and kormas, pilafs, little cutlets, as well as my favourite rice sticks wrapped in dried algae sheets.

After a few days I’m conditioned like one of Pavlov’s dogs — I drool at the sight of a swastika.

— “Swastikas” p331

This one just make me laugh, and it had the air of an aunt telling an off-colour joke.

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