It is a pure case of Murphy’s Law when Sufia lends me the divine novel Flights at the very moment when borders are closed tight and we are pinioned in our houses, butterflies in a 19th Century collection with a glass top. Be it “for our own good” or not, we aren’t just locked down but also more-or-less locked up. It may be the only thing that works against the spread of the epidemic but it is constraint that’s for sure.
And this novel Flights - if it is a novel - by Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk, has as its main character movement, travelling, flights, itching to keep going somewhere else. This main character – roaming, fleeing, always moving, not staying in the same persona – atops only, inasmuch as it has a purpose, to contemplate the odd, the bizarre, the freak, and the inside movement of blood in the highways and by-ways of our arteries and veins and capillaries. The constant travellers only pause at museums of body parts in formaldehyde, say, with a particular obsession with something like a preserved fetus with one head and two perfect bodies, meaning 1 = 2 which is challenging.
Anyway, a riveting book. In praise of the urge, the itch, the need, the impulse, the natural inclination of all humans, to move, it is not ideal reading during a lock-down. Thus Murphy’s Law: Anything that can go wrong will go wrong. I get lent a masterpiece, written in Polish in 2007 and published in English in 2017, a song in praise of travel, just at the moment when I’m locked down.
So, I suggest you read Flights when you are not.
Of course, the novel sets me thinking about our 200,000 years as humans, plus beyond that backwards maybe more than a million years as humanoids of some kind, and how we always did wander around, move on, along an escarpment, roving alongside a big herds of buffalo, say, or returning to places where we know roots and berries are rich, medicinal herbs plentiful, return to the very mountain on which this one of us, or that one, was born. And how the agricultural revolution some 10,000 or so years ago saw the beginning of sedentary ways for humans, and the end of all this moving. And then how, within so few years, we have whole institutions like “the State” that have become hostile to people who move freely – move freely as we all did for hundreds of thousands of years. You have to have an address – otherwise you are considered little more than a rodent – “without fixed abode”, “a vagrant” – and you have to have money otherwise you get declared “of no visible means of support”, “a rogue and vagabond”, liable to prosecution. If you don’t settle down and earn, the State will lock you up. Gypsies, the last societies that held out against the pressure to settle in Europe, suffered this repression. One little girl whose ten years of life had been going all around the British Isles and Ireland in a painted caravan, parking somewhere for a while, then moving on to meet up with others, in a big Gypsy family, was finally settled with her family in a house by the Social Security in a London working class housing estate. When asked by the family doctor how she liked the house, she said, “It’s very nice, but ...” “But what?” asked the family doctor. “But it doesn’t move,” she replied.
The main purpose of a house is to move.
After reading Flights, the part of me that wants to move is reawakened. As a child born in Mqanduli, then moving to Pretoria at one year old, to Bochom at two, then to Xalanga at five, to Mqanduli six, then to Pietermaritzburg at seven, to Qumbu at eleven, then to East London at twelve, to Johannesburg at seventeen – movement was so constant that I got used to it and went to Upstate New York via Iceland and then to Mozambique, then by ship to Seychelles, then to London where I met Ram, then together we went to Tanzania, then came to Bambous, I aged 26, Ram 33. And we settled. And since then, I’ve done some flights here and there – Quito in Ecuador, Bombay to stay by chance at a brothel in a slum, Neemrana in a palace, Singapor, Kenya, and in Europe – to France, Denmark, Holland, Germany, Austria, Belgium, and the UK – and some trips back to South Africa.
It is in South Africa that I tread the earth knowing that people had roamed it, wandered around it, leaving paintings in caves, for tens of thousands of years. And as I finish reading Flights, I remember this feeling of humans being large groups that move around together.
And so, we must not underestimate the strange feeling of being locked down. It reminds us of our wanderlust. Of our nature.
And, we must begin to question the terrible punishment of prison, the institution of prison. This is the ultimate lockdown in society. Being locked up in prison is much worse than being locked down for health reasons.
And we can, while in lockdown, perhaps consider ending this “prison” thing. Most people are in prison because either they can’t pay bail or a fine, or if not one of these two, because they can’t afford a barrister to get them off. A good proportion of young men are locked up because they smoke a pulya of gandya, or sell a few. Others are locked up because, in a crisis of unhappiness, they sought solace in a stronger drug – don’t we all long for pleasure to replace pain – and then ended up locked to a substance that demands regular taking.
So, while being locked down, we should work out how in Mauritius we can free all those in prison unnecessarily, starting with those locked up for non-violent offenses. Those locked up for lack of money should also just be released. The novel, Flights, makes the torture of being locked up even more clear than the discomfort of being locked down.