Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones

…people like her, those who wield a pen, can be dangerous.

One of my standout reading experiences last year was the discovery of the marvellous Polish author Olga Tokarczuk; I read and loved her Man Booker International prize-winning “Flights”, in the wonderful translation by Jennifer Croft, and it got special mention in my end of year round up.

Her novel “Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead”, an earlier work, also came out last year, rendered by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, so I was of course very, very keen to read it.

We left the house and were instantly engulfed by the familiar cold, wet air that reminds us every winter that the world was not created for Mankind, and for at least half the year it shows us how very hostile it is to us.

Set in a remote Polish village, near the Czech border, “Plow…” is narrated by Janina Duszejko. A woman in her sixties, she lives in this bleak region on her own, caring for her neighbours’ houses while they’re away for the winter, and caring as well for the animals in the area. Duszejko is a woman with an interesting past – she was previously an architect, involved in the building of an important bridge, but now works teaching English to children, reading the stars and casting horoscopes, and helping her young friend Dizzy to translate Blake. But Duszejko is at odds with the traditional world around her; she is in conflict with the local hunting club, and this extends to a general clash with traditional Polish values; as she states at one point quite baldly,

For some time I shared my bed with a Catholic, and nothing good came of it.

The book opens with a death; one of few neighbours Duszejko has who stay out the winter, Big Foot, is discovered having choked on a bone. And the deaths continue, as members of the local hunting club are gradually picked off. The authorities favour a conspiracy, with mafia involvement, as these men are known to have been high flyers. Yet Duszejko thinks differently. These men were hunters, viciously cruel to animals, and she’s convinced the latter are taking their revenge. Naturally, the authorities dismiss this as the theories of a cranky old woman; but Duszejko is adamant, and tries to persuade her group of misfit friends, including her other neighbour Oddball, Dizzy, Good News from the local thrift-style store and Boros, a visiting insect specialist. But what is the truth?

Winter mornings are made of steel; they have a metallic taste and sharp edges. On a Wednesday in January, at seven in the morning, it’s plain to see that the world was not made for Man, and definitely not for his comfort or pleasure.

However, “Plow” is more than just a murder mystery; it takes in all manner of issues, from animal cruelty (perhaps the dominant theme) through the hypocrisy of organised religion, the shifting borders of countries, the stars and predestination, the misogyny meted out to older women and society’s treatment of outsiders, misfits and the marginal. Duszejko is constantly met with disbelief or anger as she tries to make her point and much of this is because she’s female.

My belief (is) that the human psyche evolved in order to defend us against seeing the truth. To prevent us from catching sight of the mechanism. The psyche is our defence system – it makes sure we’ll never understand what’s going on around us. Its main task is to filter information, even though the capabilities of our brains are enormous. For it would be impossible to carry the weight of this knowledge. Because every tiny particle of the world is made of suffering.

As with “Flights”, “Plow” is a brilliantly written book which touches on all these deep subjects yet keeps you completely hooked. Tokarczuk’s writing is the kind where every sentence matters; you find yourself pausing regularly to consider what you just read and the meaning behind it, and each new development alters your perceptions (a very Blakeian touch). The book’s title is drawn from William Blake, a recurring presence in the story, and the bones of the dead are ever-present; most often in the form of suffering animals, but there is the human death too and I was reminded that we can all suffer and die in the same way, whether man or beast. Throughout the story Duszejko suffers all manner of unspecified ailments which colour her life and appear almost psychosomatic at time, brought on by events around her; another way of emphasising our connection with the world. She’s also regularly visited by her death mother and grandmother, and at times her connection with the real world seems slight.

At night I observe Venus, closely following the transitions of this beautiful Damsel. I prefer her as the Evening Star, when she appears as if out of nowhere, as if by magic, and goes down behind the Sun. A spark of eternal light. It is at Dusk that the most interesting things occur, for that is when simple differences fade away. I could live in everlasting Dusk.

Despite this being what appears initially to be a straightforward narrative, albeit one constantly laced with sadness and also dark humour, Tocarczuk’s distinctive voice soon draws the reader into the web of Duszejko’s mind and it’s a very complex one. She has a shifting, unsettling voice, often hinting at events which took place in the past, rather than coming straight out with facts – for example the loss of her beloved dogs isn’t given explicit explanation until much closer to the denouement. Is Duszejko an unreliable narrator? Probably – hers is a very particular viewpoint and her individuality is emphasised by touches like the use of capitals for particular words where you aren’t expecting it, another Blakeian element, and one which the latter apparently used to ascribe importance to particular parts of his writings. Similarly, objects and people are given names more appropriate to how they are than their actual names, which adds another layer of dislocation and strangeness, highlighting the slight dislocation of this little world on the borders.

By Tomasz Leśniowski [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons

The language is beautiful, often hypnotic, and the natural world takes pride of place in the narrative. I think there’s probably a lot of symbolism in the book I might have missed and it certainly demands another reading. I did start to grasp some of where the book was heading as it went on, so the eventual denouement wasn’t really a surprise; but I don’t imagine Tokarczuk expected it to be, as her take on the murder mystery format is very individual!

As I gazed at the black-and-white landscape of the Plateau I realise that sorrow is an important word for defining the world. It lies at the foundations of everything, it is the fifth element, the quintessence.

As well as Duszejko, Tokarczuk presents a beautifully drawn supporting cast of characters. The little group of misfits around the narrator became like personal friends and it was actually a wrench to leave them behind as the book closed. The hunters were just revolting and I found myself, of course, in total harmony with Duszejko’s outlook; in fact, I found myself questioning her eating of cheese, as I do feel with her love of animals she should have been vegan, not just vegetarian! The outcome is perhaps controversial; well, I say perhaps, but I believe the book caused some uproar in Tokarczuk’s native Poland; I guess if you attack deeply ingrained traditions that’s what happens, but I would stand side by side with Duszejko and the animals against the hunters.

How wonderful – to translate from one language to another, and by doing so to bring people closer to one another – what a beautiful idea.

“Plow” is another deeply moving, completely involving and thoroughly original book by Olga Tokarczuk, and I could have pulled out so many more quotes than I actually have. I can’t thank her translators and publishers enough for making her work available in my language, and I reckon that this one will also end up in my books of the year round up in December. Tokarczuk is an author of originality and stature, and “Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead” is a masterly work that should be required reading if we want to try to turn the state of our world around. Highly recommended!

Review copy kindly provided by Fitzcarraldo Editions, for which many thanks!

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