Olga Tokarczuk’s wunderkammer of a novel is structured by themes rather than plotlines, and in place of character development, she builds collections. There are collections of travelers: nomads, pilgrims, tourists, the homeless; of places, from Poland to Iceland to Greece; of bodies—the vehicles we travel in—and of body parts, both the sacred ones of saints’ relics and the scientific exhibits of anatomical museums; of ideas; of stories. Flights (Riverhead, $26) is a constant surprise, moving from history (the Netherlands of 1542 and 1689, Chopin’s funeral, a timeless Sultan in an infinite desert) to a present of airports, metros, and those ubiquitous synthetic wanderers, plastic bags; from fables to myths to stories within stories. “Am I doing the right thing by telling stories?” Tokarczuk asks, and as if expressing her own ambivalence about her medium, she completes some tales, serializes others, and leaves others incomplete, though even open-ended—or especially then—these narratives support her belief that “what makes us most human is the possession of a unique and irreproducible story,” all the better to defeat the tyrants who want “to create a frozen order…to pin down the world with the aid of bar codes.”
It’s nearly impossible to read the Icelandic author Sjón without quickly falling in love with his unique, slim tales (The Blue Fox, Moonstone) that weave history, legend, fable, and fantasy with a born storyteller’s gifts. CoDex 1962 (MCD, $30) looks like a behemoth in comparison, but don’t worry, nothing has changed. In fact, this collected trilogy that began in 1991 might be his best writing to date. Our narrator Josef Loewe begins his waking life in 1962, but he first came to be many years earlier, as a little clay golem his Jewish father smuggled from a concentration camp. But this is just a springboard for countless page-turning vignettes: romances, origin myths, conspiracy thrillers, and more. Anyone who loves that soaring feeling when an author shapes a book into unpredictable forms—anyone who loves Borges or Calvino—will love Sjón, and especially here.
In his newest work of fiction, legendary Japanese writer Haruki Murakami tells a haunting tale of art, memory, and the traumas of the past. Killing Commendatore (Knopf, $30) follows a middle-aged artist at a crossroads in his life. Recently separated from his wife, the artist meets a mysterious bachelor who requests a portrait of himself. What follows takes the reader to a universe not unlike the one of Murakami’s seminal novel, 1Q84. Like a grand abstract painting, Killing Commendatore sweeps across centuries—from Nazi-era Austria to Japan’s Asuka Period to the mysteries of the present day—and rests in the idyllic settings that make Murakami’s works so memorable. Fans of Murakami’s rich prose will love Killing Commendatore’s fantasies. Like all great Murakami works, Killing Commendatore explores the caverns of human intimacy, never shying away from the forces of good and evil that make up our own relationships with the people closest to us.