Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead
reviewed by Jon Duelfer
But why should we have to be useful and for what reason? Who divided the world into useless and useful, and by what right? Does a thistle have no right to life, or a Mouse that eats the grain in a warehouse? What about Bees and Drones, weeds and roses? Whose intellect can have had the audacity to judge who is better, and who worse? A large tree, crooked and full of holes, survives for centuries without being cut down, because nothing could possibly be made out of it. This example should raise the spirits of people like us. Everyone knows the profit to be reaped from the useful, but nobody knows the benefit to be gained from the useless.
Olga Tokarczuk is an excellent writer. Her prose is elegant yet readable, and her ideas can be both comical and deeply philosophical. She refuses to abide by the standard norms of fiction and forges her own path, sometimes failing to captivate, but often presenting the reader with something unique and indispensable.
The first piece I read from Tokarczuk was Borderland (Granta). She breathed life into a post-apocalyptic setting – often overused and dull in today’s literature, but lively and vibrant in her hands. She managed to blend prose and an intriguing story line at a perfect balance.
I then read her novel, Flights, which was a shockingly experimental work. There was hardly a plot to tie its disparate fragments together, essentially being a bundle of ideas, events, and prose bound together only by a theme. It was difficult to read, but a masterful work that needed to be put to paper.
Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, published by Riverhead Books (a subsidiary of Penguin Random House) and picking up a new translator (Antonia Lloyd-Jones), turns back to narration. Typical of Tokarczuk, it also turns to philosophy and morality. The claim might be made that it’s a more standard book than Flights, but that would probably be overlooking its radical moral arguments.
Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead is a murder mystery. It follows the narration of an older woman in a small Polish town bordering the Czech Republic as men go missing and are found dead. The men were all hunters for sport, and their deaths – at least from the eyes of the narrator – seem to be retribution at the hands of wild animals.
Janina Duszejko is a semi-retired woman living on the plains of southern Poland, on the border of the Czech Republic. Although she now lives a quiet life, she references some times in her past, where for example, she built an industrial bridge in Syria. She now teaches part-time English in the town, clearly more for something to do than as a fulfilling career. When asked about her life by her students, she reflects on it:
For people of my age, the places that they truly loved and to which they once belonged are no longer there. The places of their childhood and youth have ceased to exist, the villages where they went on holiday, the parks with uncomfortable benches where their first loves blossomed, the cities, cafés and houses of their past. And if their outer form has been preserved, it’s all the more painful, like a shell with nothing inside it anymore. I have nowhere to return to. It’s like a state of imprisonment.
She is furious with the town’s fixation on hunting. It’s everywhere – part of their culture, religion, everyday lives. She is vegetarian and makes her morals clear to those around her, which largely make her an outcast. Her anger is exacerbated by the disappearance of “her girls”: her two dogs that she believes were killed by hunters illegally.
Her narration is particular; her prose is overly formal at times, and she uses proper nouns for concepts related to nature and the world (note how she writes Theory, Ailment, Person, and Tools in the passage below):
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.
That elaborate passage to make a witty joke about aging men is hilarious and typical of Tokarczuk. These subtle perceptions on the nature of the world are woven into her story so that you might even miss them if not paying close attention.
Janina is into astrology – crazily and frustratingly so. I believe with this, Tokarczuk is trying to show how Janina is detached from reality. But honestly, there was simply far too much talk about it. Even if it was sarcastic in tone, or meant to show Janina’s instability, astrology should have been a much lesser focus.
That being said, Janina is a sort of unreliable narrator because she has such strong convictions – meaning she sees that world entirely different from the characters around her. Conveying this is incredibly difficult (thinking of The Sound and the Fury as an example). I just found the parts about astrology near unreadable.
Janina’s neighbor, Big Foot, is found dead in his home. Janina and another neighbor, who she calls Oddball, discover that Big Foot died choking on a chicken bone. They haphazardly move the body around and cover it up – ignoring all sorts of typical protocols.
When the police arrive, it turns out that the head investigator is Oddball’s son. He gets angry at his father for having altered the scene of the death, but doesn’t do anything further about it. While looking around the house, Janina finds a photo that shocks her deeply, but doesn’t reveal to the reader what it is (part of her unreliable narration).
Not longer afterwards, the police Commandant – not Oddball’s son, but a local from the town – is found dead. His police truck was parked by an old well with his body tossed into it. It appears he died from blunt force to the head.
Dizzy, Janina’s friend and former student who continues to be her pupil by helping her translate the poetry of William Blake, is the one to find the Commandant. He sees animal tracks all over the scene of the crime, which leads Janina to posit that it was animals that killed the Commandant as retribution for his hunting. She even goes so far as to write letters to the police with this theory.
Obviously, everybody around her is appalled that she believes this. The police at first ignore her entirely, thinking that she is just some crazy old woman. This frustrates her beyond all doubt, and she writes more and more letters and visits the police station to convince them of her theory.
Things seem to settle down a bit, and one day a young biologist happens on Janina’s house, which borders the forest he’s doing research in. They hit it off immediately – bonding over a similar love of nature. He is in the area studying a species of beetles that is being harmed by lumber harvesting. Janina takes him into her house and a romantic relationship seemingly ensues (although Janina is never upfront about it, really).
Finding somebody like her seems to propel her anger at the local town. She goes to the church one day and stands up in the middle of the service, accusing the pastor of indoctrinating children in the vile belief that humans are superior to animals. The next day, she is called into the principal’s office at the school she works at and is fired – clearly indicating how closely knit the community is with these long-held beliefs.
Two more deaths occur, and the book begins to make its way to a conclusion.
I keep on picking up Tokarczuk because I know there will be moments where I am absolutely blown away by her writing. I expect times for her experiments to not turn out great, but the good always triumphs over the bad. Nature is beautiful, sentiments are so real, and she experiments with language and story, rather than sticking to set genres.
Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead was an attempt, I believe, to attach her masterful writing to a more popular theme. Whether that was from her publisher or if Tokarczuk was merely interesting in doing this, I’m not sure.
The ideas she put forth were well-worth thinking about and the story was a decent one to follow. I found it a bit hard to keep going mid-way through the book, but the last 100 pages or so really pick up and are pretty excellent. The reader is also in for a little “twist,” which is pretty exciting.
I don’t really mind that this is not one of her best pieces. Part of appreciating Tokarczuk is appreciating her experimentation. She recently published Yente in The New Yorker, which I have yet to read but am looking forward to.