The Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk has been publishing novels in her home country for over three decades now. Prowadź swój pług przez kości umarłych was published in 2009 and exactly ten years later, the translation Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by the incredibly talented Antonia Lloyd-Jones finally conquered the international book market. It is high time that the vegetarian feminist and public intellectual, who is called a targowiczanin, an ancient term for a traitor in Poland, is read by everyone. In 2018, Tokarczuk was supposed to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature, but after the jury was engulfed in a scandal, the award was postponed until 2019. Writing in a country that has seen a rise in right wing populist politicians, Tokarczuk’s controversial und provoking novels might just be what the literary world needs. It’s time.
Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead is hard to categorize. I picked up this book because I heard much about Tokarczuk, but I had no idea what her novel is about. After finishing it, it is still hard to put it into words, simply because it serves more than one genre, more than one theme. Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead is a philosophical and ecological fairy-tale murder mystery including passages of dark feminist comedy and addressing political and moral issues. In addition to that, the novel can be seen as an homage to William Blake’s poetry, as the title alone is taken from his poem The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, and passages of his poetry mark the beginning of each chapter in the book. I guess that is how I would categorize the book if I had to.
The novel is told through the eyes of the elderly Janina Duszejko, the first-person narrator. Janina hates her first name, she hates names in general, which is why she christens her friends and fellow human beings according to their nature: Big Foot, Good News, the Writer, the President. She used to work as a bridge constructor, but due to her unhealable, chronic pains, who are not named or described further, she had to resign. Now, she is working as an English teacher at a primary school twice a week and translates Blake’s poetry with her friend and former student Dizzy. She lives outside the village in a forest on a plateau, close to the Czech border, and barely has any neighbours. It is cold and the wind howls mercilessly. Not many villagers dare to live where she lives, and in winter, Janina looks after the houses that are only inhabited during the summer months. Moreover, Janina spends her free time calculating astrological patterns, trying to find out when a person is going to die by looking at the stars and planets.
Sometimes I think that only the sick are truly healthy.page 84
So far so good. The story sets off in medias res: the neighbour of Janina, Big Foot, is found dead in his house. He was known to have been one of the many hunters of the village, who poached wild animals, and abused his dog. Janina remembers the howling of the dog she heard every night and is reminded of her own dogs, her “little girls” she lost a year ago. Now, Big Foot is found dead after having choked on a deer bone. Outside the hut of the hunter, Janina spots the herd of deer watching, as if they knew what happened to the man. In the weeks that follow Big Foot’s death, more and more members of the hunter community are found dead in the forests. At the crime scene, the police discover footprints of animals, set off traps and insects that crawl inside the dead bodies.
At some point in the novel, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead acts on the edges of magic realism. Are animals taking revenge and killing the hunters of the village? Are they punishing them for their love for meat and killing? Is some other supernatural monster walking around the village and killing the men? Is Janina right and the stars and planets decide upon the faith of the dead men? Despite her reputation of being the old crazy lady who is into Astrology, Janina suddenly becomes an important investigator as her astrological predictions are accurately right. Nevertheless, this book is not a simple whodunit. Tokarczuk herself states that “just writing a book to know who is the killer is wasting paper and time”. And so Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead is indeed more than that.
What struck me most about this novel are Janina’s observations and her compassion for animals. When she saw the hunters walking around the forests, shooting animals without regardless of losses, she confronts them, tries to stop them, fights for the animals. She repeatedly alarms the police about Big Foot’s poaching and reports the hunter’s illegal hunting, she has a special connection to animals, and she weeps when she finds a dead deer in the forest. All this time, nobody listens to her. For the police, she is a madwoman, a nuisance. For the villagers, she is a target of ridicule. Old, sick, weak, a bit crazy. However, nothing has fascinated me more than Mrs. Duszejko’s character as she is troubled about the world we live in, about the hierarchy of humans and fellow animals, and wonders why the killing of animals is seen as morally right. Watching a pregnant woman sitting on a bench in the village, Janina wonders: “How could one possibly know all this and not miscarry?”.
It is these questions that I ask myself and that are repeated again and again in this book, forcing the reader to overthink their morals and behaviour towards animals and nature, making this such an intriguing read. The hunters refer to their right to shoot animals, because God put men above animals, and therefore they are protecting the natural order. Tokarczuk includes open criticism of the catholic church, who supports the hunter’s community in the story by imposing the hierarchy of superior humans and inferior animals on society. The hunters are playing God. Janina asks her fellow human beings and Tokarczuk asks us: What is the difference between a hare, a deer and a cat? Why do we kill thousands of pigs and cows in factory farming every day but pet the cat in our lap? Janina struggles to find answers. She does not understand how children are taught in school that the slaughter of animals is morally acceptable in this society. I wonder that myself.
What sort of a world is this, where killing and pain are the norm?page 107
Why should you read Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead? Well, first, the language is beautiful. Of course, I have not read the polish original, but I believe Antonia Lloyd-Jones has done an incredible job as a translator. She managed to translate Tokarczuk’s passages of Blake’s translated poetry in Polish back to English, she kept Janina’s dark and witty voice, and she preserved the mysterious mood of the book. Second, this book is not simply one of the most suspenseful and weird mystery stories I have ever come across, it slowly creeps up on you and does not let you go. Even after closing it, questions of morality fly around in your head. In my opinion, everybody must read this book. Yes, everybody. If you are usually not interested in murder mysteries, read this book for its philosophical questions: Free will versus determinism? What distinguishes us from animals? Are animals object to human laws? And many more.
At a time, in which the rights of women and animal are under attack in Poland and many other countries, Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead might be just the novel we need. This book is funny, vivid, dangerous and disturbing. Tokarczuk’s intellect mixed with her anarchic sensibility makes this worth a read. Pick it up. Read it. Maybe afterwards, we understand this mad world and its inhabitants a little bit more, just a little bit. After all: “How could we possibly understand it all?”.
Paperback, 274 pages