Fiction – Kindle edition; Fitzcarraldo Editions; 215 pages; 2018. Translated from the Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones
This morning I awoke to the news that Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive your Plow over the Bones of the Dead has been longlisted for this year’s Man Booker International Prize. (You can see the entire longlist on Tony’s blog.)
I read this excellent Polish novel last week because it had made the shortlist for the EBRD Literature Prize and I had been invited to the award ceremony and wanted to be up to speed with the nominations. (I had already read one of the other shortlisted titles, Soviet Milk by Nora Ikstena, translated from Latvian by Margita Gaelitis, which I absolutely adored, but ran out of time to read the winning book — Hamid Ismailov’s The Devils’ Dance — but hope to get to it soon.)
Tokarczuk actually won the Man Booker International Prize last year for her novel Flights, which earned her and her translator £25,000 apiece. If she wins it again, I suspect she’ll be the first author to take the prize two years in a row.
An eccentric narrator
Drive your Plow over the Bones of the Dead — the title comes from a book by William Blake — stars an eccentric woman in her sixties who is an expert in astrology, loves William Blake and champions animal rights.
‘Its Animals show the truth about a country,’ I said. ‘Its attitude towards Animals. If people behave brutally towards Animals, no form of democracy is ever going help them, in fact nothing will at all.’
Janina Duszejko is the kind of woman who lives alone, preferring animals to people, and writes letters to those in authority when she sees something she doesn’t like or agree with.
A former construction engineer, she now works at a school teaching young children — “I always did my best to capture their attention fully, to have them remember important things not out of fear of a bad mark but out of genuine passion” — and her spare time keeping an eye on her neighbour’s second homes, which are locked up during the winter months, and translating the work of William Blake with a former student.
Set in a remote village in Poland, just across the border from the Czech Republic, the story is a deft mix of Janina’s subversive interior monologue combined with a criminal investigation into the deaths of several of her neighbours, who all died in mysterious circumstances. Janina’s theory, which she is keen to share with everyone, including the police, is that the murders were committed by animals as an act of vengeance: each victim is a hunter and the footprints of deer are always nearby.
A noirish book with a sense of humour
Lest you think the book is overly dark and noirish, I can assure you that it’s not. Yes, Janina is a bit crazy and yes, she admits she’s pessimistic — “I see everything as if in a dark mirror, as if through smoked glass. […] I interpret everything as abnormal, terrible and threatening. I see nothing but Catastrophes” — but there’s a lot of humour in this book and Janina is wonderful company.
It was hard to have a conversation with Oddball. He was a man of very few words, and as it was impossible to talk, one had to keep silent. It’s hard work talking to some people, most often males. I have a Theory about it. With age, many men come down with testosterone autism, the symptoms of which are a gradual decline in social intelligence and capacity for interpersonal communication, as well as a reduced ability to formulate thoughts. The Person beset by this Ailment becomes taciturn and appears to be lost in contemplation. He develops an interest in various Tools and machinery, and he’s drawn to the Second World War and the biographies of famous people, mainly politicians and villains. His capacity to read novels almost entirely vanishes; testosterone autism disturbs the character’s psychological understanding. I think Oddball was suffering from this Ailment.
It’s a wonderfully atmospheric read, too, because Tokarczuk’s prose somehow captures the feeling of cold and snow and the beauty of nature during the winter. It feels very Eastern European in mood and setting, dripping as it does with melancholy and a kind of intellectual strangeness.
I’ve seen some descriptions of Drive your Plow over the Bones of the Dead as a crime novel, but I’m not sure I agree that’s the best way to sum up a story that refuses to be boxed in as such. This is a highly original novel, one that is as much about compassion and equality between humans and animals as it is about a string of mysterious deaths in a snowy setting. It’s not a police procedural, nor is it a straight philosophical anti-hunting text but it is an intriguing mix of both, with a lot of other stuff thrown in for good measure including themes of loneliness, independence and growing old.
It won’t be for everyone, but for me it was a rather thought-provoking read and has made me keen to try more by this best-selling Polish author.
This is my 9th book for #TBR40. I bought it on Kindle late last year, although I can’t quite remember what prompted me to buy it. I suspect it might have been off the back of her Man Booker International win…