New East Digital Archive

Flights: an extract from Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk’s mythical new book

17 May 2017

In an extract from her newly translated book Flights – a novel intertwining travel narratives, human anatomy and reflections on life and death – acclaimed Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk voyages to the past, capturing the moments, exchanges and fleeting tableux that compose life, then and now.


I often dreamed of watching without being seen. Of spying. Of being the perfect observer. Like that camera obscura I once made out of a shoebox. It photographed for me a part of the world through a black closed space with a microscopic pupil through which light sneaks inside. I was training.

The best place for this kind of training is Holland where people, convinced of their utter innocence, do not use curtains. After dusk the windows turn into little stages on which actors act out their evenings. Sequences of images bathed in yellow, warm light are the individual acts of the same production entitled ‘Life’. Dutch painting. Moving lives.

Here at the door appears a man, in his hand he has a tray, he puts it on the table; two children and a woman sit down around it. They take their time eating, in silence, because the audio in this theatre doesn’t work. Then they move to the couch, watch a glowing screen attentively, but for me, standing on the street, it isn’t clear what has absorbed them so – I only see flickers, flutterings of light, tiny pictures, too brief and distant to be intelligible. Someone’s face, a mouth moving intensely, a landscape, another face… Some say that this is a boring play and that nothing happens in it. But I like it – for example the movement of a foot playing unconsciously with a slipper, or the whole astonishing act of yawning. Or a hand that seeks upon a plush surface a remote control and – having found it – is calmed, withers.

Standing off to one side. Seeing only the world in fragments, there won’t be any other one. Moments, crumbs, fleeting configurations – no sooner have they come into existence than they fall to pieces. Life? There’s no such thing; I see lines, planes and bodies, and their transformations in time. Time, meanwhile, seems a simple instrument for the measurement of tiny changes, a school ruler with a simplified scale – it’s just three points: was, is and will be.

Read more Olga Tokarczuk has been writing novels since the 1980s, and is one of Poland’s most lauded – and most controversial – writers. In 2015 she won the Nike Literature Award, Poland’s highest literary honour, for her novel The Book of Jacob, which questions Pol


1542 was the dawn of a new era although unfortunately no one so much as noticed. It wasn’t a big year, nor the end of a century – from the perspective of numerology, there was nothing there, just the number three. And yet that year the first chapters of Copernicus’ De revolutionibus orbium coelestium and the entirety of De Humani corporis fabrica by Vesalius appeared.

Needless to say, neither book contained everything – but can anything ever contain everything? Copernicus was missing the rest of the Solar System, planets like Uranus, which was still waiting for the right time to be discovered, on the eve of the French Revolution. Vesalius, meanwhile, lacked a number of specific mechanical solutions in the human body, spans, joints, connections – such as, to give just one example, the tendon that joins the calf to the heel.

But maps of the world, of this internal and that external world, had already been drawn up, and that order, once glimpsed, irradiated the mind, etching into it the primary – the fundamental – lines and planes.

Let’s say it is the warm November of 1689, some time in the afternoon. Filip Verheyen is doing what he usually does, sitting at the table, in the pool of light that flows in through the window, as though specially projected for this very purpose. He examines tissues arrayed over the table’s surface. Pins driven into the wood keep grey nerves in place. With his right hand, without looking at the paper, he sketches what he sees.

Seeing, after all, means knowing.

But now there’s someone banging on the door, and the dog’s barking ferociously, and Filip must get up. He is reluctant. His body has already adopted its favourite position, his head inclined over the specimen; now he must lean on his intact leg and drag out from beneath the table the leg that exists as a wooden peg. Limping, he goes to the door, where he manages to calm the dog down. At the door stands a young man whom Verheyen recognises – but only after a considerable pause – as his student, Willem van Horssen. He’s hardly pleased by these visits, though no visit would please him, but still he takes a step backwards, his wooden leg tapping at the stone slabs of the entrance, and he invites his guest inside.

Van Horssen is tall, with lush, curly hair and a joyful face. He goes over to the kitchen table and sets down the things he bought en route: a wheel of cheese, a loaf of bread, apples and wine. He talks loudly, brags about tickets – this is the reason for his having come today. Filip has to make an effort not to let his face betray his irritation with the grimace of a person who’s just landed in the middle of some horrendous clamour. He guesses that the reason for the arrival of this fellow – a nice fellow, at that – is explained in the letter that lies uncut in the entrance on the little table. As the guest lays out the victuals, the host cleverly hides the letter, and will henceforth pretend he knows its contents.

He will also pretend he hasn’t been able to find a hostess, although he hasn’t actually sought one out at all. He will pretend that he recognises all the names his visitor will mention, although in reality his memory isn’t good. He is a rector at the University of Leuven, but since the summer he has been holed up in the countryside, complaining of his health.

Together they kindle a fire and sit down to eat. The host eats reluctantly, but then it’s clear that each bite further awakens his appetite. The wine goes well with the cheese and meat. Van Horssen shows him the tickets. They look at them in silence, and then Filip goes up to the window and sets the lenses of his glasses so as to better see the intricate drawing and lettering. Because even the ticket itself is a work of art – below the text at the top there is a beautiful illustration by Master Ruysch, a tableau of skeletons of human fetuses. Two of them sit around a composition consisting of rocks and dried branches, holding in their hands some musical instruments, one of which looks like a trumpet, another like a harp. Looking carefully at the tangle of lines, there are even more bones and skulls, fine and delicate, and any attentive observer would certainly make out of them still more little fetuses.

‘It’s beautiful, isn’t it?’ asks the guest, looking over the host’s shoulder.

‘What about it?’ Filip Verheyen answers off-handedly. ‘Human bones.’

‘It’s art.’

But Filip can’t be dragged into discussion, bears no resemblance to that Filip Verheyen whom van Horssen knew from the university. The conversation doesn’t exactly flow, and you might get the impression that the host is absorbed by something else, perhaps solitude has stretched out his thoughts into long strands, and accustomed him to internal dialogues.

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‘Do you still have it, Filip?’ asks his old student after a long interlude.

Verheyen’s laboratory is located in a small outbuilding, reached through a door in the entrance. He is not at all surprised by the sight inside, more reminiscent of an engraver’s workshop, full of plates, etching basins, chiseling sets hanging on the wall, ready prints drying everywhere, and tangles of tow scattered across the floor. The guest unintentionally walks up to the printed sheets of paper – all of them show muscles and blood vessels, tendons and nerves. Carefully marked, absolutely transparent, perfect. There is also a microscope here, first-rate, an instrument that would be the envy of many, with lenses ground by Benedictus Spinoza, through which Filip observes the bundles of blood vessels.

Under the single, but large, south window there stands a clean broad table, and on it, the same specimen that has been there for years. Next to it you can see a jar containing nothing but straw-coloured fluid that fills it two-thirds full.

‘If we’re to go to Amsterdam tomorrow, help me tidy this all up,’ says Filip, adding reproachfully: ‘I’ve been working.’

He begins with his long fingers to delicately detach the tissues and vessels stretched out with the aid of tiny pins. His hands are as fast and as light as the hands of a butter fly-catcher, rather than an anatomist, or an engraver gouging grooves into hard metal that acid will later turn into a negative of an engraving. Van Horssen merely holds a jar of tincture in which parts of the specimen drown in a transparent, lightly brown liquid, as though returning home.

‘Do you know what this is?’ says Filip and points with the nail of his pinky finger to the lighter substance above the bone. ‘Touch it.’

The guest’s finger extends to the dead tissue, but doesn’t reach it remaining suspended in mid-air. The skin was cut in such a way as to reveal this place in a completely unexpected manner. No, he doesn’t know what it is, but he makes a guess:

‘It’s the musculus soleus, a component of it.’

His host looks at him for quite a while, as though looking for words.

‘From now on it is the Achilles Cord,’ he says.

Van Horssen repeats after Verheyen, as though memorising these two words.

‘The Achilles tendon.’

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His hands, which he’s wiped off with a rag, now take out from under the files of papers a diagram sketched out from four perspectives, incredibly accurate: the lower leg and foot comprise a single whole, and it is already hard to believe that once they were not so put together, that in this place there was nothing at all, just some blurred image, now completely forgotten; everything had remained separate, and now it is together. How could this tendon never have been noticed? It’s hard to believe that parts of one’s own body are discovered as though one were forging one’s way upriver in search of sources. In the same way one follows with a scalpel along some blood vessel and establishes its start. White patches get covered with the network of a drawing.

One discovers, and names. Conquers and civilises. A piece of white cartilage will from now on be subject to our laws, we’ll do with it what we will now.

But the thing that strikes young van Horssen most is the name. He’s a poet, in fact, and despite his medical training, he would prefer to be writing verses. It is the name that opens up fairytale images in his mind, as though he were looking at Italian canvases peopled by full-blooded nymphs and gods. Could this part of the body be named any better, this part by which the goddess Thetis grabbed onto little Achilles to bathe him in the Styx and immunise him from death for all eternity?

Maybe Filip Verheyen has happened on the trail of a hidden order – maybe in our bodies there’s a whole world of mythology? Maybe there exists some sort of reflection of the great and the small, the human body joining within itself everything with everything – stories and heroes, gods and animals, the order of plants and the harmony of minerals? Maybe we ought to take our names in that direction – the Artemis Muscle, the Athens Aorta, Hephaestus’ Malleus and Incus, Mercury Spirals.

The men go to bed two hours after nightfall, both in one bed, a double bed that must have been left here by the previous owners – Filip has never had a wife. The night is cold, so they have to pile on a few sheepskins, which with the damp prevailing throughout the house give off a smell of sheep’s fat and pens.

‘You have to return to Leiden, to the university. We need you there,’ begins van Horssen.

Filip Verheyen detaches the leather straps and sets his wooden leg to one side.

‘It hurts,’ he says.

Van Horssen understands he’s talking about the stump set out on the nightstand, but Filip Verheyen points beyond it, at the now non-existent part of his body, at empty space.

‘The scars hurt?’ the younger man asks. Whatever it is that hurts, it doesn’t lessen his great sympathy for this slender, fragile man.

‘My leg hurts. I feel pain along the bone, and my feet drive me mad. My big toe and its joint. They’re swollen and inflamed, the skin itches. Right here,’ he says, leaning down and indicating a small crease in the sheets.

Willem is silent. What is he supposed to say? Then they both lie down on their backs and pull the covers up to their necks. The host blows out the candle and disappears, then says out of the darkness:

‘We must research our pain.’

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It is understandable that the ambulations of a man moving atop a wooden orb cannot be too spry, but Filip is brave and were it not for a slight limp and the clatter of his prosthesis down the bone-dry way, it would be diffcult to realise that this man is missing one leg. The slower tempo also means there’s time to talk. A crisp morning, the streets are lively, sunrise, the sun’s disc scraped up by slender poplars – it’s a pleasant walk. Halfway there they manage to stop a cart carrying vegetables to the Leyden market, thanks to which they have more time for a real breakfast at the Emperor’s Inn.

Then from the harbour at the channel they got on a boat pulled overland by massive horses; they choose cheap places on deck under a tent that shields them from the sun, and because the weather is nice, the trip becomes pure pleasure.

And so I shall leave them – heading on a barge to Amsterdam, in a shadow-stain passing across the water cast by the covering of the tent over their heads. Both of them are dressed in black, wearing white starched batiste collars; van Horssen is more lavish, neater, which means just that he has a wife who takes care of his clothing, or that he can afford a servant – probably nothing more. Filip is sitting with his back to their direction of travel, comfortably leaning, with his healthy leg bent, his black leather slipper crowned by a dark purple tattered ribbon. The wooden orb leans on a knot in the boards of the barge. They both see each other against a backdrop of fleeting landscape: fields bordered with willows, drainage ditches, the piers of small harbours and wooden houses covered in reeds. Goose down floats like tiny watercraft along the shore. A light warm breeze moves the feathers in their hats.

I will only add that in contrast to his master, van Horssen has no talent for drawing. He is an anatomist, and for each autopsy he hires a professional draftsman. His working method consists in precise notes, so precise that when he rereads them everything comes right back before his eyes. For this, too, is a way. Writing.

Moreover, as an anatomist, he tries to earnestly fulfill the recommendation of Mr Spinoza, whose teachings were feverishly studied here until they were forbidden – to look at people as at lines, planes and bodies.

Olga Tokarczuk will be launching her book on 31 May at Calvert 22 Space in London. Olga will be in conversation with journalist James Woodall from The Economist, talking about the book, her literary career, and a range of topics explored in Flights.

Flights by Olga Tokarczuk and translated by Jennifer Croft is published by Fitzcarraldo Editions and is out today.