DRIVE YOUR PLOW OVER THE BONES OF THE DEAD
By Olga Tokarczuk
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones
There are people who make good wedding guests, uninhibited dancers with a high tolerance for small talk. Or people who make good dinner party guests, who know better than to foist flowers on the cook, or conscientious weekend guests, who strip the beds without being asked. But the Polish author Olga Tokarczuk (whose unclassifiable first novel, “Flights,” won last year’s Man Booker International Prize) would make an ideal funeral guest. Her narrators have a tendency to turn dreamy on the subject of mortality and poetic when it comes to our “definitively inhuman” human containers. Now her jones for gruesome corporeal ruminations, which was given over 400 pages to soar in “Flights,” has been grounded to great effect in “Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead.”
This marvelously weird and fablelike mystery, originally published in Poland a decade ago and now translated into English by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, opens in the dead of winter on a remote Polish plateau so close to the Czech Republic the phone signal crosses it “with no regard for the national borders.” Emergency operators pick up in the wrong country, which is a problem for the novel’s cantankerous narrator, Janina Duszejko, the caretaker for the seven summer homes that dot the plateau. Locals see her as “an old woman, gone off her rocker living in this wilderness. Useless and unimportant.” She spends her days poring over the poetry of William Blake and “The Complete Ephemerides, 1920-2020.” Her socialization is limited, her empathy reserved for inanimate objects (a refurbished house “looked as if it wanted to be left in peace to carry on decomposing”) and animals, which “show the truth about a country.”
It’s the middle of the night when a neighbor she refers to as Oddball informs her of the death of another neighbor, the callous and unattractive Big Foot (she eschews formal first and last names for their “lack of imagination”). Big Foot has choked on the bone of a deer he illegally poached. Soon more men turn up dead and, as the community searches for clues, Duszejko’s theory of an animal uprising blossoms. The novel could’ve easily been titled “PETA’s Revenge.”
A letter-writing campaign to the local law enforcement commences: “I wish to appeal to the gentlemen of the Police not to shy away from the idea that the perpetrators of the above-mentioned tragic incidents could be Animals” — which only cements her reputation as a kook. She obsesses over astrological charts. She suffers from mysterious ailments. She could give Elaine Benes a run for her money when it comes to her sex life: “I raised the quilt and invited him to join me, but as I am neither Maudlin nor Sentimental, I shall not dwell on it any further.” Tokarczuk is a vocal feminist writer and it’s no accident that the more Duszejko’s (she signs all her official missives with simply her ungendered surname) sanity is called into question, the more relatable her plight becomes.
Authors with Tokarczuk’s vending machine of phrasing (flowers stand “straight and slender, as if they’d been to the gym”) and gimlet eye for human behavior (her tone is reminiscent of Rachel Cusk, with an added penchant for comedy) are rarely also masters of pacing and suspense. But even as Tokarczuk sticks landing after landing (“perhaps there were some angels watching over him; sometimes they turn up on the wrong side”; “it’s a feature of flashlights that they’re only visible in the daytime”; “the best conversations are with yourself. At least there’s no risk of a misunderstanding”), her asides are never desultory or a liability. They are more like little cuts — quick, exacting and purposefully belated in their bleeding. If “Flights,” translated by Jennifer Croft, was built for ambience, Lloyd-Jones’s translation of “Drive Your Plow” was built for speed.
As this thriller quickens, larger theoretical questions about the perception of sanity, the point of suffering and the clarity of anger (“Anger puts things in order and shows you the world in a nutshell”) blanket the plot. Meanwhile, the political commentary becomes more pronounced as the Czech Republic is fetishized as a low-key Shangri-La where people are “capable of discussing things calmly and nobody quarrels with anyone else.”
Only the extended passages on astrology threaten to derail the reader. Lyrical as they are, they could be airlifted out of the novel without causing any structural damage. Tokarczuk successfully aligns these pages with the book’s broader themes, but one can feel that argument being made. Like an insurance policy against skimming. I couldn’t rid myself of the nagging sense that, for all her reverence for nature, Duszejko would no sooner find comfort in the cosmos than she would in an invisible friend.
The smoother argument made in “Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead” is that conforming to nature is sanity, whereas conforming to humanity is idiocy. To be in constant grief due to the cruelty of man is not misanthropy, it’s pure logic. “What sort of a world is this, where killing and pain are the norm?” Duszejko asks. “What on earth is wrong with us?” This book is not a mere whodunit: It’s a philosophical fairy tale about life and death that’s been trying to spill its secrets. Secrets that, if you’ve kept your ear to the ground, you knew in your bones all along.
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