Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead: Olga Tokarczuk

Translated from Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones
Published by Fitzcarraldo Press / Thorndike Press, 2019, 274 pages. Original version published in 2009.

“[S]ometimes I feel we’re living in a world we fabricate for ourselves. We decide what’s good and what isn’t, we draw maps of meanings for ourselves… And then we spend our whole lives struggling with that we have invented for ourselves. The problem is that each of us has our own version of it, so people find it hard to understand each other.”

The middle of winter in Poland, near the Czech border. Janina Duszejko is one of three people who live in the little hamlet during the winter, when the summer visitors have gone.  She is woken one night by her neighbour Oddball (she has names for everyone—she finds their given names inadequate), who tells her that their neighbour Big Foot is dead. They find Big Foot lying on the floor of his house, having choked on the bone of a deer he had killed and cooked. Duszejko feels it is rough justice. 

Big Foot’s death is followed by the murder of the chief of police, who used to hunt. He is found in a well with deer footprints all around him. And then the body of the rich entrepreneur who runs a fox farm is found in the woods, weeks after his disappearance. Duszejko is convinced that it is the animals taking their revenge, but she is dismissed as a batty old woman.

But this is not a simple whodunit and Duszejko is no batty old woman. She is the narrator, observant, funny, honest and a little melancholic, haunted by the disappearance of her two dogs. She looks out for the animals who live in the forest around her and has far more sympathy for them than for most humans.  

One of her frequent visitors (almost the only visitor) is Dizzy, who used to be her student and is now working with the police. On his visits, he not only keeps her abreast of the investigation but works with her on his real passion: the poetry of William Blake that he is translating. Lines from the poetry of William Blake are scattered throughout the book, resonating with Duszejko’s connection with nature and her anger at the way it is being desecrated.

Interwoven with the murder mystery are questions of animal rights and astrology. As Duszejko tries to unravel the mystery around her, she muses on vegetarianism, human arrogance and the importance of astrological forces—she is a keen astrologer. Convinced that the alignment of stars at a person’s birth can predict their death, she starts studying the charts of the victims.

This is an unusual book, a riff on the relationship between humans and animals, and how skewed it is. The hunters have erected wooden towers, reminiscent of a concentration camp. These are called pulpits. Listening to a priest praise hunting at a mass, celebrating it as honouring nature, Duszejko understands why: “In a pulpit, Man places himself above other Creatures and grants himself the right to their life and death. He becomes a tyrant and a usurper.”

There is a lot of passion here, and Duszejko is an engaging character: sharp, unafraid to tell it like it is, angry and empathetic at the same time. I loved this book—it has been beautifully translated, and the use of initial capitals on some nouns reminded me of some of the classics of the 18th century. But this is very much a novel of its time. I would strongly recommend it.

Olga Tokarczuk won the 2018 Nobel Prize for Literature.

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4 thoughts on “Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead: Olga Tokarczuk

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