‘Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead’ by Olga Tokarczuk (Review)

After a rousing adventure over in Lithuania, the Polish fun continues today a little further west.  My latest read involves an eccentric old(?) woman, an isolated community and a series of mysterious murders that have baffled the local police.  However, out in the forests some animals are waiting and watching – surely they couldn’t have anything to do with it, could they?

*****
Most readers will have heard about Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk’s Man Booker International Prize winning novel Flights (translated by Jennifer Croft), and Fitzcarraldo Editions have wasted no time in bringing out a second Tokarczuk work, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead (this time translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones).  The novel, set in the rural south-west of Poland, close to the Czech border, is narrated by Janina Duszejko, a semi-retired woman living by herself with only two neighbours for company, and is a clever novel bringing together flights of fancy and the best traditions of noir fiction.

The story begins when one of her neighbours knocks on her door late one night, disturbed by the unusual lights illuminating the house of the other.  When Janina and her neighbour (whom she dubs Oddball…) go over to investigate, the man is dead, having apparently choked on a deer bone.  The odd couple decide to clean up and change the corpse before rigor mortis sets in, and then stand back to examine their work:

Only his right index finger refused to submit to the traditional pose of politely clasped hands but pointed upwards as if to catch our attention and put a brief stop to our nervous, hurried efforts.  ‘Now pay attention!’ said the finger.  ‘Now pay attention, there’s something you’re not seeing here, the crucial starting point of a process that’s hidden from you, but that’s worthy of the highest attention.  Thanks to it we’re all here in this place at this time in a small cottage on the Plateau, amid the snow and the Night – I as a dead body, and you as insignificant, ageing human Beings.  but this is only the beginning.  Only now does it all start to happen.’
p.24 (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2018)

An ominous sign indeed, and a prescient one, too.  This truly is just the start – you see, this may be the book’s first death, but it certainly won’t be the last…

If you’ve read Flights, then you probably weren’t expecting a murder mystery from Tokarczuk’s next book, but that’s exactly what we get.  As the story unwinds at a leisurely pace, with Janina rambling on about life in her tiny corner of Poland, more men meet their unlikely demise in the background.  The police are clueless (in general, not just regarding this case), and the people in the neighbouring villages begin to get nervous as the deaths come ever closer to home.

One of the major themes of Drive Your Plow… concerns the way people treat animals.  Janina, a staunch vegetarian, stands out like a sore thumb in this hunting community, and she does her best to make people see the error of their ways by pointing out the uncomfortable truths others would rather ignore:

When you walk past a shop window where large red chunks of butchered bodies are hanging on display, do you stop to wonder what it really is?  You never think twice about it, do you?  Or when you order a kebab or a chop – what are you actually getting?  There’s nothing shocking about it.  Crime has come to be regarded as a normal, everyday activity.  Everyone commits it.  That’s just how the world would look if concentration camps became the norm.  Nobody would see anything wrong with them. (pp.112/3)

It’s this belief that allows her to entertain an intriguing notion regarding the murders.  Having noticed the deer watching outside the house of the first victim, and the hoof-prints surrounding the second body, she begins to believe that the animals may have decided to fight back.  At first, it appears to be an absurd notion, but gradually the idea of animals running wild grabs the imagination of the frightened locals.

Janina’s views can be disturbing for many of the other characters, but they’re not the only ones that sometimes feel that she’s crossed the line.  The publication of the book caused quite a storm in Poland, and a recent film adaptation had people accusing the writer of an attack on the country’s culture and religion (the church doesn’t come off too well here, with frequent accusations of hypocrisy).  At times, you can understand their point of view:

No, no, people in our country don’t have the ability to club together to form a community, not even under the banner of the penny bun.  This is a land of neurotic egotists, each of whom, as soon as he finds himself among others, starts to instruct, criticize, offend, and show off his undoubted superiority. (pp.188/9)

This is far from the only example of unpatriotic passages, with the writer (in the guise of Janina) taking frequent potshots at the bigoted nature of her fellow Poles.  It’s little wonder that not everyone is a fan of Tokarczuk’s work…

Part of the success of the book is due to the isolated setting, with its harsh winters, beautiful springs and the foreboding woods, but the supporting cast also plays its part.  Janina seems to have attracted a group of misfits around her, people who, like her, don’t quite fit into the society the writer critiques.  In addition to Oddball, there’s Dizzy, her William-Blake-translating former student; Good News, the woman from the second-hand clothes shop; and Boros, an entomologist who turns up by chance and stays longer than expected.  This group of people, randomly thrown together, come to form a different kind of community, and make up a support group for Janina.

The heart of the novel, though is Janina herself, passionate believer of astrology, English teacher, part-time translator, former bridge-builder and more besides.  While constantly concerned about her Ailments (she’s occasionally stricken down with joint pains, rashes and streaming eyes), she’s surprisingly independent and fearless, capable of standing up to the villagers.  One of the constant strands through the novel is her determination for the police to answer her many letters accusing the animals of the murders (something the hapless cops would rather just forget about).  With the whole novel told through her eyes, Janina’s voice is key, so luckily Lloyd-Jones, one of the biggest names in Polish-English literary translation, is on board to get it right.  Janina’s quirks are caught beautifully, and the excellently rendered voice pulls us along through the story, with never a false step.

The title is taken from the work of William Blake (hence the spelling of ‘plough’, unusual for UK readers), and his work is an important aspect of the novel.  Quite apart from the poems and letters Janina and Dizzy translate, each chapter has an epigram taken from Blake’s poem ‘Auguries of Innocence’, which, when read closely, can be seen as a call-to-arms for animal rights activists.  Poetry’s not really my area, but I suspect that the decision to integrate Blake’s work into the novel involved more than just a few casual mentions.  I do wonder if there are more secrets concealed here…

Overall, Drive Your Plow… is highly entertaining, a thriller with an ethical edge (I’m sure J.M. Coetzee would approve), and a book I thoroughly enjoyed.  In truth, I’d be surprised if this was the kind of book to go back-to-back in the MBIP, but it’s entertaining and well written all the same.  Despite being more literary fiction than thriller, the book does (luckily) eventually reveal how the poor victims met their end.  I’m not going to give any of that away, of course, but it’s certainly a sombre reminder of the realities of the human-animal relationship, and a reminder that one creature’s dinner is another’s family…

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8 thoughts on “‘Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead’ by Olga Tokarczuk (Review)

  1. I loved this book so much. What a character, what a voice. In the wrong hands this could have gone really wrong. I was also surprised when this book turned out to be, essentially, a thriller. I don’t believe in astrology at all, but since reading, I’ve been inspired to look up my full chart, based on my birth date, time, and place, like Janina does. It’s a little eerie, I have to admit…

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    1. Laura – I have to admit that the thriller aspect was the part I least liked about this – I much preferred the philosophical musings and ramblings side!

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      1. Recently read this book – very different but equally as fantastic as “Flights.” Ordered the film adaptation from Amazon (as referenced in Jack’s post) and was equally delighted.

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