Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarozuk: A review

Olga Tokarozuk, Polish writer, feminist, and activist, was belatedly awarded the 2018 Nobel Prize for Literature, announced earlier this year. She also won the 2018 Man Booker International Prize for her previous novel, Flights. This latest novel made it to the shortlist for the 2019 Man Booker International Prize. The woman is obviously on a roll so it was time I made her acquaintance and I decided to start with the intriguingly titled Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead

I learned that the title is a quotation from William Blake's Proverbs of Hell. The narrator of Tokarozuk's book is a part-time English teacher who is obsessed with Blake and is engaged, with a partner, in translating his works to Polish. The narrator is Janina Duszejko who hates her own name as well as the names of her neighbors. She prefers the nicknames that she gives them. Names like Oddball, Bigfoot, and Dizzy.

Our narrator was a civil engineer by profession. She is now in her 60s and, in addition to being a part-time teacher, she is a full-time practitioner of astrology and a vegetarian who prefers animals to humans. She lives in an isolated hamlet near the border of the Czech Republic that is nearly deserted in the winter. She also serves as a winter caretaker for several summer homes in the area. She suffers from "Ailments" which occasionally incapacitate her and she mourns the disappearance of her "Little Girls" who we eventually learn are her two dogs. She believes that our lives are ruled by our pre-conscious experiences with the stars and planets. She is the very definition of an eccentric and an intriguing character and the narrative is presented entirely through her eyes.

Hunting is a major occupation in the area and Janina is at war with the hunters and poachers. She has made herself a pest with the local police with her letters of complaint about them, but to her distress, nothing is ever done to address her complaints. 

Then one stormy night, her neighbor Oddball comes to her house to announce that another neighbor, Bigfoot, one of the main offenders among the hunters, is dead. Janina goes with him to Bigfoot's house. It seems that he choked to death on a deer bone. They notify the police but only after cleaning up and dressing Bigfoot.

Soon, another neighbor dies in mysterious circumstances, an apparent accident. His body is surrounded by hundreds of deer tracks. Janina insists that the animals are finally taking revenge against their tormentors. Naturally, the police consider that a fanciful idea.

Then, another hunter dies. This one was the operator of a fox farm and he is found in gruesome circumstances. The reader belatedly comes to realize that what had been reading as almost a fairy tale is actually a noir mystery/thriller. A very cunningly devised mystery.

Janina, the crank that no one pays attention to, continues to expound her theory that the animals are dispensing vengeance, some might say justice, and, meantime, the investigators seem completely clueless.

This was a thoroughly satisfying read that manages to explore questions of justice and tradition, as well as ask where is the line between sanity and madness? And what regard do we owe to our neighbors?

I read the book in translation and had I not known that I would not have been able to tell that the book's original language was not English. The translation was done by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, an Englishwoman, and this rich and atmospheric narrative flowed without obstruction. The dark denouement was both unexpected and, one now sees, entirely inevitable.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars   

Comments

  1. I suspect that "The Tyger". Is one of the best known poems in the English language, with many people being able to recite a line or two, often without knowing of its origins, or being able to name even one of Blake's other works!

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    1. I suspect you are right. I've been reading some of his poems this week as I read this book and I plan to feature one of them for my poetry post tomorrow.

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  2. Lovely review!! I have Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarozuk on my ever growing reading wishlist, so I was excited to see and read your review of this novel. I look forward to eventually reading it.

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    1. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. Tokarozuk is an amazing writer. It is evident that all the awards she has received are well-deserved.

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  3. Great review, Dorothy! I will be reading this one soon!

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    1. I think you will love it. I look forward to reading your review.

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