Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead [2009/2018] – ★★★★1/2
This book by Olga Tokarczuk (the winner of the International Booker Prize Award for Flights) was translated from the Polish in 2018 by Antonia Lloyd-Jones. In this story, an eccentric elderly woman Janina Duszejko recounts a series of murders happening in her small village near Kłodzko, Poland. Her neighbour’s death follows that of other hunting men in the vicinity, and suspicions begin to mount. Janina has her own unusual theories about the murders, and these involve animals. But, is she really a new Polish Miss Marple? Tokarczuk did not just write a detective story – her book combines existential philosophy, animal rights and village politics (small people vs. big power) theses, unchangeable horoscope arguments and literary (William Blake) references to produce one of a kind story whose main narrator steals every other page with her insightful and often bizarre observations. Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead is a strange literary concoction, but also an atmospheric and intelligent one.
“In seed time learn, in harvest teach, in winter enjoy.
Drive your cart and your plow over the bones of the dead.
The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.
Prudence is a rich ugly old maid courted by Incapacity.
He who desires but acts not, breeds pestilence.
The cut worm forgives the plow.
Dip him in the river who loves water”
(William Blake, Proverbs of Hell, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell .)
The story begins with Janina being woken up by her neighbour whom she calls “Oddball”. Their mutual neighbour, a man called “Big Foot”, is found dead in his home. Big Foot was unpopular around their small village of about seven houses, but Janina and Oddball still find it their duty to dress the dead man so that he can be presentable when authorities come to inspect the scene. At this point the detective story begins and some clues have been left behind for the reader to try to solve the puzzle. Small village mysteries are often really special mysteries because of their cosy atmosphere and few suspects. Drive Your Plow is no different, and the story feels even spookier because the events happen during one winter season and near a Polish-Czech Republic border. The latter fact means that the story has both a local and international dimension/message. Despite the interesting setting, however, as a detective story, Drive Your Plow is rather disappointing. This is the kind of a book which deals with many issues and elements, and the uncovering of the culprit of the murders is only a small and rather unsatisfactory element because of its obviousness and predictability.
Rather, it is Janina’s personality (the story is told through her eyes), her eccentric world-viewing, including her literary and astrological insights, and the hinting vs. animal rights theme which all give fire and intelligence to the novel. Janina starts her story with the following line – “I am already at an age and additionally in a state where I must always wash my feet thoroughly before bed, in the event of having to be removed by an ambulance in the Night” [Tokarczuk, 2009/18: 13]. Janina’s melancholy and often fatalistic way of looking at things and events is unsettling, but also fascinating. She is steeped in astrology and planetary movements, and is concerned with human and animals fates. Janina is also reclusive and solitary, especially when her Little Girls are gone, taking pleasure only in her loneliness, astrology (her hobby is calculating horoscopes), teaching and spending evenings translating William Blake with her friend Dizzy, her former pupil.
“Blake would say that there are some places in the Universe where the Fall has not occurred, the world has not turned upside down and Eden still exists. Here Mankind is not governed by the rules of reason, stupid and strict, but by the heart and intuition. The people do not indulge in idle chatter, parading what they know, but create remarkable things by applying their imagination. The state ceases to imposes the shackles by daily oppression, but helps people to realise their hopes and dreams. And Man is not just a cog in the system, not just playing a role, but a free Creature”
[Olga Tokarczuk, 2009/2018: 92].
When the murders happened, Janina has her own Theories of what happened, and it is also rightly to point out that her Theories extend much further than the events in her village. Her “wisdom” takes numerous shapes, and the reader will be both intrigued and unnerved by the narrator. Her astrology obsession means that she compares a police station with a “temple of Pluto“, and she is also perceptive enough to see beneath appearances to discern the “truth” of things. “Everything is connected with everything else, and we are all caught in a net of coincidences of every kind” [Tokarczuk, 2009/18, 215], says Janina. Her obsession with William Blake results in her other enigmatic statements, such as “everything possible to be believed is an image of the truth“, when she quotes Blake, and “only sick are truly healthy” [2009/18: 92]. Like the author, Janina also seems to be a good, even if unorthodox psychologist, knowing as much about the human need for prayer as about the inadequacy of the human body to take care of itself. “Perhaps that’s the whole point of prayer – to think to yourself in peace, to want nothing, to ask for nothing, but simply to sort out your own mind. That should be enough” [Tokarczuk, 2009, 18: 231].
“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 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 participle of the world is made of suffering”
[Olga Tokarczuk, 2009/2018: 223].
Another curious thing to note about this book is that its language and the choice of words reflect the story’s atmosphere and the nature of the story. Like Blake himself, the narrator writes her supposed story with certain words appearing in capital letters, including Animals, Anger, Ailments, Little Girls, Night, Soul and Mankind, among others. By writing them in capital letters, these words immediately have a powerful effect on some psychological level, making them and, therefore, their place in the story/the world much more important and significant. These words also drive the story forward and are more meaningful in the context than it is evident at the first glance. The narrator also states a number of times that she “slept like dead”, meaning that even her ordinary language reflects the morbid nature and fatalistic premise of the story. This reminded me of Arundhati Roy’s literary masterpiece The God of Small Things , where the language used also reflected the state of mind of the characters and the main message of the story.
Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead is a dark tale permeated with meaning and significance to be uncovered. There is certain humour inside, and the book is great in the way it deals with many issues, from personal existential anxiety and the transience of human life to village politics and animals rights. The voice of the main character is one not easily forgotten, even if the detective story itself is rather underwhelming and unbelievable in nature.