Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk – the entire cosmic catastrophe
An astonishing amalgam of murder mystery, dark feminist comedy and paean to William Blake from the Polish winner of the 2018 International Man Booker prize
By: Sarah Perry
Olga Tokarczuk, whose 2007 novel Flights was awarded the International Man Booker in 2018, is a figure of considerable stature and controversy in her native Poland. An outspoken feminist and public intellectual, she has been castigated as a targowiczanin: an ancient term for a traitor. Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead – first published in 2009, and now arriving in a deft and sensitive English translation – provides an extraordinary display of the qualities that have made Tokarczuk so notable a presence in contemporary literature.
The novel is almost impossible to categorise. It is, in effect, a murder mystery: in the bleak Polish midwinter, men in an isolated village are being murdered, and it is left to Janina Duszejko, a kind of eastern European Miss Marple, to identify the murderer. But a mere whodunit would hardly satisfy a novelist who said “just writing a book to know who is the killer is wasting paper and time”, and so it is also a primer on the politics of vegetarianism, a dark feminist comedy, an existentialist fable and a paean to William Blake.
Janina tells us on the first page that she is “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”. A bridge engineer turned schoolteacher, now reluctantly in retirement, she is devoted to Blake, and to studying astrological charts in order to make sense out of chaos. Her narrative voice gives the novel an instant propulsive charm: she exists, immediately, on the page – forthright, brilliant, funny, given to capitalising words in a fashion that recalls Tristram Shandy (“I combine the Practical and the Sentimental”). Deeply troubled about the world, her place in it and the hierarchy of humans among their fellow animals, she is often moved to dreadful melancholy, such as when she watches a pregnant woman reading a newspaper, and wonders: “How could one possibly know all this and not miscarry?”
She is also chronically sick, with an illness that is never defined and seems to constitute an essential part of her character: but she entertains no self-pity, writing: “Sometimes I think that only the sick are truly healthy.” She christens her friends and neighbours according to their nature – Big Foot, Oddball, Dizzy, Good News – and has an intense affinity for the local deer, whom she calls her “young ladies”. When Oddball is found murdered, a shard of bone jammed down his throat, in the first of a spate of violent deaths, Janina believes that the key to the mystery lies in her village’s love of hunting, both for sport and for meat. The reader wonders if the novel will take a turn towards magic realism: when a victim is found with deerprints hectically marking the snow all around him, it seems entirely feasible that, as Janina professes to believe, animals are committing murder. It is fitting that the spirit of Blake is so insistently present in the novel (the title is taken from his poem The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, and each chapter is headed by a Blake quotation): he wrote that “all wholesome food is caught without a net or a trap”, and would have shared the narrator’s horror at the village’s macho hunting culture.
Though the book functions perfectly as noir crime – moving towards a denouement that, for sleight of hand and shock, should draw admiration from the most seasoned Christie devotee – its chief preoccupation is with unanswerable questions of free will versus determinism, and with existential unease. What, it asks, does it mean to be human, and what is it to be an animal, and what objective distinctions can be made between the two? Why is the killing of a deer mere sport, and the killing of a human murder? And if animal rights are elevated to those of human rights, would animals then be subject to criminal and human law – if an animal can be said to have been murdered, might it equally be charged with murder? What, moreover, are we for? Janina opens a kitchen drawer and looks at the “long spoons, spatulas and strange hooks” and thinks, in a moment of purest Sartre: “I would really like to be one of those Utensils.” She knows herself to be trapped – “I cannot be someone other than I am. How awful” – but refuses to be a dutiful prisoner of society and gender.
In Antonia Lloyd-Jones’s translation, the prose is by turns witty and melancholy, and never slips out of that distinctive narrative voice. It also contains perhaps the most bravura translation performance I have ever seen, when Janina and her companion repeatedly attempt to translate a passage of Blake: several versions of a particular verse are rendered in English, which has been translated from the Polish, which in turn has been translated from English. It is difficult to imagine a more tricky task for a translator, or one undertaken with more skill.
That this novel caused such a stir in Poland is no surprise. There, the political compass has swung violently to the right, and the rights of women and of animals are under attack (the novel’s 2017 film adaptation, Spoor, caused one journalist to remark that it was “a deeply anti-Christian film that promoted eco-terrorism”). It is an astonishing amalgam of thriller, comedy and political treatise, written by a woman who combines an extraordinary intellect with an anarchic sensibility. Her subject is the entire “cosmic Catastrophe that gave the world its being”. As she asks: “How could we possibly understand it all?”