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Review: Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead

Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead (translated from the Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones) caught my attention the first time I saw it’s title. Nominated for both the Man Booker International prize and the National Book Award prize for translated fiction earlier this year, it’s certainly been getting some buzz. In addition, Tokarczuk was just announced the 2018 winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature. If those accolades aren’t enough, let me tell you a bit about this incredible book.

driveyourplowoverthebonesofthedeadIn the novel, an old woman living in a secluded Polish village looks after the houses of the folk who spend their winters elsewhere. She’s one of three who remain in the cold months- until one day, one of her neighbors comes knocking with a request for her to help him deal with the third man, who’s dead. She has occasion to do a bit of snooping in his house at that time, and will later tell anyone who’ll listen (and some who won’t) that animals have killed him in revenge (he was a known poacher). Most call her crazy and move on, but when more of the villagers turn up dead as the year wears on, it becomes obvious that something suspicious is going on. In the midst of this unresolved murder spree, Mrs. Duszejko continues to complain loudly about local treatment of animals, fighting against even legal hunting practices.

“Sorrow, I felt great sorrow, an endless sense of mourning for every dead Animal. One period of grief is followed by another, so I am in constant mourning.”

Though this book opens with a striking chapter that depicts neighbors dealing with their own dead in a desolate winter world, what first captured my attention about Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead was not the action but rather the singular voice of the story’s narrator. I don’t often enjoy books about animals, or books that ask readers to pity animals; I have enough natural empathy for living creatures, and don’t feel that my caring more about them will make any difference in the world, so I tend to find them repetitive, needlessly sad, and ultimately ineffective (for me personally- I respect that they are more successful with other readers). But Mrs. Duszejko gave me a human connection to this story that managed to keep me invested even though I didn’t always agree with her or feel interested in her arguments. Her perspective makes perfect sense for her character, though there are occasional moments when even the reader must question her sanity (just another brilliant move by Tokarczuk). Her viewpoint may seem a bit extreme, but there is something suspicious going on, and the way that her neighbors react to her claims can be as telling as the rumors floating through the village.

“Try to keep your theory to yourself. It’s highly improbable and it could do you harm.”

“Don’t get so upset about things. Don’t take the whole world on your shoulders. It’ll all be fine.”

Plot-wise, this book falls into the mystery genre, though it’s not really about the strange deaths of the local men- at least, not for Mrs. Duszejko. For her, the main contention of the book is whether or not anything will be done about the crimes against animals that she’s been diligently reporting. For that reason, it might be more appropriate to call this novel a character study. And that, for me, was the main flaw of the book- it’s structured as a puzzle in which our main character seems to have little interest throughout most of the novel. Of course the pieces come together for her (and everyone else) in the end, but my only real complaint here was that I didn’t feel like there was any driving force to propel me through the book. Convincing humanity to stop hunting/eating/taking advantage of animals seems like an obvious lost cause from the start, and that is the conflict Mrs. Duszejko is concerned with. Even though I enjoyed her odd life and opinions, I would put this book down at the end of the day, and feel no urge to pick it up again the next. It took me twice as long to read as it should have (judging by page count), even though I liked reading it. And I think at the end of the day, that comes down to a disconnect with the mystery element.

Otherwise, my only issue was that toward the end of the story the “villain” has to monologue an explanation of how they’ve gotten away with the crimes to that point. Most of the clues are scattered beautifully throughout the book so that they aren’t immediately obvious but easy to recall when they become important later. A few hints would have sufficed for the reader to piece the mystery together without being told quite so blatantly, but the solution is clever.

Also clever: seemingly random capitalization. I have a theory about this: Mrs. Duszejko capitalizes the things (in her first-person narration) that she has great respect for- things that play a powerful role in the way she lives her life. This list includes mainly naturally-occurring things, like Murk, Night, Animals… It also includes proper names of people and places, but enough common nouns are affected to lend the story a whimsical feel, though its topics are anything but.

” ‘Its Animals show the truth about a country,’ I said. ‘Its attitude toward Animals. If people behave brutally toward Animals, no form of democracy is ever going to help them, in fact nothing will at all.’ “

It’s hard to say much more without giving the best parts away, so I’ll say only that it’s a weird, wonderful little book sure to challenge the way readers think about the intricate bond between humanity and the natural environment. Mystery aside, it’s a powerful and timely look at the way we are using and abusing the earth we live on. Despite the narrator’s firm opinion on the modern treatment of animals, the book does not force the reader to take Mrs. Duszejko’s side, and leaves plenty of room for discourse. It’s a book that’s sure to stay with me in the same way that The Overstory now comes to mind every time I look at a tree. Tokarczuk brings Poland to vibrant life with this atmospheric little village, and her characterization of Mrs. Duszejko (and her potential madness) is worth reading even if, like me, you’re not initially sold on the animal rights themes. Even though the mystery was the weakest part of the story for me, there’s plenty of surprise in store for the reader, and plenty of commentary to love. Highly recommend.

“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 meaning for ourselves… And then we spend our whole lives struggling with what we have 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.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I thought this was such an accomplished novel, and I’m very much looking forward to checking out Tokarczuk’s Man Booker International winning novel from 2018, titled Flights. She’s clearly a skilled writer. I’m so disappointed Drive Your Plow didn’t make the shortlist for the National Book Award last week, and now very curious about the titles that surpassed it there. Clearly I need more translations in my reading life!

 

The Literary Elephant