Drive Your Plow Over The Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk (translated from the Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, Man Booker International Prize 2019)

Only a piece of machinery could possibly carry all the world’s pain. Only a machine, simple, effective and just. But if everything were to happen mechanically, our prayers wouldn’t be needed. (p. 49)

Well, this is a strange and endearing book. It reads, in part, almost like a fairy tale where macabre goings-on are carried out by the forest folk.

It is the elderly Janina Duszejko’s opinion that animals are committing the murders which have occurred on the Plateau where she lives in one of three cottages. As the novel begins, she is pulled awake in the middle of the night by her neighbor, Oddball, who takes her over to Big Foot’s house where the later has been discovered dead. He has a freshly killed Deer head on the table and a small bone on which he choked to death in his mouth. “One Creature had devoured another, in the silence and stillness of the Night.” (p. 26)

As Janina searches for Big Foot’s identity card, on the sideboard and in the drawers, she comes across a wad of photographs, one of which utterly shocks her.

I looked at it more closely, and was about to lay it aside. It took me a while to understand what I was looking at. Suddenly, total silence fell, and I found myself right in the middle of it. I stared at the picture. My body tensed, I was ready to do battle. My head began to spin, and a dismal wailing rose in my years, a roar, as if from over the horizon an army of thousands was approaching – voices, the clank of iron, the creak of wheels in the distance. Anger makes the mind clear and incisive, able to see more. It sweeps up the other emotions and takes control of the body. Without a doubt Anger is the source of all wisdom, for Anger has the power to exceed any limits. (p. 27)

The names of things and emotions are capitalized in this novel. The Animals. The Deer. The Little Girls, Tools, or even Hypothesis. It casts a disconcerting importance on parts of the English language, making it almost other worldly. It mimics, perhaps, William Blake’s style from which her title comes:

In seed time learn, in harvest teach, in winter enjoy. Drive your cart and your plow over the bones of the dead.” (William Blake, Marriage of Heaven and Hell)

And yet, what Olga Tokarczuk says about the animals, I, too, hold very much to be true. “Animals have a very strong sense of justice,” she writes. (p. 202) They certainly seem more capable of understanding the nature of things than we human Beings.

You know what, sometimes it seems to me we’re living in a world that 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 what we 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. (p. 223)
Drive Your Plow Over The Bones of The Dead tells the story of Janina, her grown up student Dizzy (who translates Blake’s poetry), and the men living around her who love to shoot. But, it is so much more than that. Within the pages of this book, Olga Tokarczuk picks up much larger themes: of relationship, and religion, and a deep seated sense of justice for the unprotected; for those she loves.
My copy is filled with tabs, marking places which I feel I could have written myself for how profoundly I feel them. Places such as these:
There’s also a stony precipice nearby, but anyone who thinks it’s a natural feature would be mistaken, for it’s the remains of an old quarry, which used to take bites out of the Plateau and would surely have consumed the whole thing eventually in the avid mouths of its diggers. They say there are plans to start it up again, at which point we shall vanish from the face of the Earth, devoured by Machines. (p. 58)
and
I see us moving about blindly in eternal Gloom, like May bugs trapped in a box by a cruel child. It’s easy to harm and injure us, to smash up our intricately assembled, bizarre existence. I interpret everything as abnormal, terrible and threatening.
and
‘Its Animals show the truth about a country,’ I said. ‘It’s attitude towards Animals. If people behave brutally towards Animals, no form of democracy is ever going to help them, in fact nothing will at all.’ (p. 109)
and
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.”
and
I worked at a school and taught the children various useful things: English, handicrafts and geography. 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.
Janina’s passion, which I cannot help but see as part of Olga’s herself, is a great and tumultuous thing. It takes over her being, giving her a purpose from which she will not swerve. She may not have the answers, not be able to solve the wounds of this world by her own actions, but she is searching for Light. On page 48, in the beginning of the novel, Olga writes:
It undoubtedly gave us respite, and the corpse (Big Foot’s) lying there became more and more unreal, until it was just an excuse for this gathering of hard-working people on the windy Plateau. We sang about the real Light that exists somewhere far away, imperceptible for now, but that we shall behold as soon as we die. Now we can only see it through a pane of glass, or in a crooked mirror, but one day we shall stand face to face with it. And it will enfold us, for it is our mother this Light, and we came from it.
That is a little different from that verse in Corinthians of which it resonates, but it reflects the fact that many of us are searching for the Light:
For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. 1 Corinthians 13:12 (KJV)
I loved this book. Hubert Mingarelli’s The Four Soldiers and Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over The Bones of The Dead are by far my two favorite books from the long list. I have two more to go before I am done: Love in The Time of The Millennium by Can Xue and The Remainder by Alia Trabucco Zeran. Then I shall give you a one sentence summary of each of the thirteen, should you not have taken the time to read all of them as I did, for the short list will be announced April 9, 2019.
(Thanks to Fitzcarraldo Editions for a copy of Drive Your Plow Over The Bones of The Dead to review.)

4 thoughts on “Drive Your Plow Over The Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk (translated from the Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, Man Booker International Prize 2019)

  1. Your particular interest in translated literature is my first window into books that I would normally never pick up. Although I also benefit greatly ( and happily) from face to face discussions about them I look forward to seeing your photographic interpretation of their cover art. Imagine Dear Sammy curled up next to this book with so much animal imagery. Your sweet animals live well.

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  2. I heard an interview on Book Worm about Flights so I added that one to my list but this one sounds much more to my liking even though it’s so odd. I guess Murakami has prepared me in this way.

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  3. Pingback: For Women In Translation Month this August, Ten of My Favorite Authors – Dolce Bellezza

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