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“I am a phantom built out of pain.” #olgatokarczuk @FitzcarraldoEds

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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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The trick is to keep moving… #WITmonth #OlgaTokarczuk @jenniferlcroft

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Flights by Olga Tokarczuk
Translated by Jennifer Croft

I can’t think of a better book to start off Women in Translation month!

Author Olga Tokarczuk and translator Jennifer Croft won the Man Booker International Prize this year with “Flights”, and although I tend to avoid most book prize winners like the plague, this one was shouting out to me to be read. Having spent several stimulating days in its company, I can say that in many ways it’s a hard book to review because it’s a hard book to define. Is it a diary? A novel? A collection of interlinking philosophical musings? Short stories? A series of travelogues? An extended meditation on the human need to make journeys? A study of the study of human anatomy and the art of preservation? All of these things and none of these things? It’s certainly dark and provocative in places, yet entirely intriguing and inspirational, and full of the most beautiful writing (elegantly rendered into gorgeous English by Croft).

It is widely known, after all, that real life takes place in movement.

In simple terms, “Flights” is a book about travel. In a series of pieces of varying length, Tokarczuk’s narrator ranges through time and location to explore human beings and their constant inability to settle (a syndrome from which the narrator also suffers). These individual his/herstories range far and wide, taking in such disparate tales as the last journey of Chopin’s heart, a missing wife and child on a Croatian island, a variety of Cabinets of Curiosities, the morals of preserving a human being’s body against their will, tales from a harem and the last cruise of an ageing professor. This latter thread, towards the end of the book, has some of the most beautiful yet achingly sad writing where Tokarczuk describes with stunning and chilling imagery the effects of a stroke, drawing on the motif of water and its destructive power against paper which she uses throughout the book. As my Dad suffered from several of these, it touched a nerve.

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

However, we always return to the framing narrative which deals directly with movement itself, travel psychology, the growth of airports, encounters with strangers en route and so much more. There are recurring themes – Moby Dick and whales, embalming and the preservation of the body, the endless questing nature of humans, the slippery nature of our perceptions of reality – all stitched together into a rich and compelling narrative.

… the Earth is round, let us not be too attached, then, to directions.

And the overarching theme is always movement, travel, flight – the latter word with a double meaning, as we are often in flight, running during our lives, either to or from people or places. “Flights” taps into the human spirit, recognising that we are restless, constantly searching beings, always moving on from what we already have. As a species we are unable to keep still, constantly driven to explore – and it could be argued that that is why we’re in the mess we are nowadays. A very pertinent and relevant short section of the book details carrier bags travelling the world as if they were some strange new species, which was funny and tragic at the same time.

We are the individual nerve impulses of the world, fractions of an instant, barely that part of it that permits the change from plus to minus, or maybe the other way around, and keeps everything in constant flux.

Tokarczuk is a Polish author and activist who trained as a psychologist (and I think this shows in the depth of her work); she’s courted controversy over the years by expressing views which have been unpopular with some patriots from her country. She’s won numerous awards for her writing in a variety of countries, and certainly if “Flights” is anything to go by, she’s an author to explore further. Croft seems to be her ideal translator (I love it when there’s a meeting of minds between the author and the person who renders their work in another language) and apparently she’s translating another of Tokarczuk’s works, which is very exciting for us Anglophones.

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

There is always the risk when writing a work as audacious and ambitious as this (and Perec’s “Life: A User’s Manual” springs to mind) that the whole will not cohere and will simply be a collection of parts. Tokarczuk acknowledges the difficulty of writing early on in the book:

Anyone who has ever tried to write a novel knows what an arduous task it is, undoubtedly one of the worst ways of occupying oneself. You have to remain within yourself all the time, in solitary confinement. It’s a controlled psychosis, an obsessive paranoia manacled to work, completely lacking in the feather pens and bustles and Venetian masks we would ordinarily associate with it, clothed instead in a butcher’s apron and rubber boots, eviscerating knife in hand. You can only barely see from that writerly cellar the feet of passersby, hear the rapping of their heels. Every so often someone stops and bends down and glances in through the window, and then you get a glimpse of a human face, maybe even exchange a few words. But ultimately the mind is so occupied with its own act, a play staged by the self for the self in a hasty, makeshift cabinet of curiosities peopled by author and character, narrator and reader, the person describing and the person being described, that feet, shoes, heels, and faces become, sooner or later, mere components of that act.

However, I think she succeeds brilliantly with “Flights”, which is an extraordinary work, a real tour de force with soaring prose and unforgettable stories. Tokarczuk weaves a wonderful tapestry of travellers’ tales whilst all the while digging down into the human psyche to see what it is that motivates us and what it means to be human. Reading “Flights” is like taking a wide-ranging and thought-provoking journey. It’s a book that certainly deserves slow and close reading, and then reading again to truly appreciate its complex and multi-layered narrative; and it’s most definitely deserving of the praise and prizes it’s received. A wonderful start to #WIT month.

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