Drive your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead
By Olga Tokarczuk
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones
I was given this book by one of the readers of this newsletter. (I’m absolutely not fishing for gifts or seeking recommendations for review , but credit where credit is due). I also know that another reader of this newsletter bought this book because she was intrigued by the title.
And what about the title? It’s strange, it’s sinister and at the same time it’s an everyday scene, a farmer ploughing a field. It is taken directly from William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. The title one of the proverbs of hell, but don’t worry too much about that. Blake’s conception of hell, in fact Blake’s conception of most things, is far removed from the world as most people find it. But it is worth devoting a little more time to Blake, because Tokarczuk does. She starts each chapter with a Blake quote. He is easy to quote, if difficult to read in bulk, because he often wrote in aphorisms.
One of the characters in the book is deeply immersed in translating Blake into Polish and two qualities of Blake’s suffuse this book. One is rage. Blake raged against a lot of things, social injustice, people who tried to pick holes in his spiritual conception of the world, cruelty to animals, dark satanic mills, you name it and Blake had a fiery opinion on the matter. The other is Blake’s belief that every person’s imagination is sacred to themselves and not to be denied by others.
So are you prepared for the weird, the opaque and the hyper-individualistic?
Janina Duszejko (but don’t you dare call her Janina; she has a deep feeling that she is not a Janina) lives in a remote forested area of Poland, near the Czech border. In the summer, most people only inhabit the remote houses above the valley and on the plateau. Mrs. Duszejko stays all year round. She calls the two other neighbours who stay Oddball and Big Foot.
Oddball calls on her in the middle of the night, to tell her that Big Foot is dead:
‘The porch light went out automatically and we walked across the crunching snow in total darkness, except for Oddball’s headlamp, which pierced the pitch dark in one shifting spot, just in front of him, as I tripped along in the Murk behind him.
“Don’t you have a torch?” he asked.
Of course I had one, but I wouldn’t be able to tell where it was until morning, in the daylight. It’s a feature of torches that they’re only visible in the daytime.’
And there you have it: the protagonist and narrator of the story, the world she lives in and a deft movement from a modern porch light into an intimidating and archaic world ( M for Murk is not a typo) and from there into the mind of someone intensely witty but somewhat off course.
But remember, everybody’s imagination is sacred to themselves and in this book there are a coterie of odd characters with large imaginations who are realized with love and respect.
There are a larger number of more everyday characters who are raged against in true Blakean fashion. Here is Mrs. Duszejko’s reaction to the parish priest, who is about to give a sermon on the patron saint of hunters:
‘It occurred to me that if there really was a Good God, he should appear now in his true shape, as a Sheep, Cow or Stag, and thunder in a mighty tone, he should roar, and if he could not appear in person, he should send his vicars, his fiery archangels, to put an end to this terrible hypocrisy for once and for all. But of course no one intervened. He never intervenes.’
Blake, rage and odd characters aside, this book is at heart a complex noir mystery. The first death is an accident but later people start getting killed in bizarre ways reminiscent of The Name of the Rose. On one side of the story there is Mrs. Duszejko, with her passionate feelings about animals and her belief that astrology can predict the time and nature of a death, on the other is an increasingly backward-looking, church-oriented and male-dominated Polish society. Mrs. Duszejko has a theory that the animals are uniting and taking their revenge on the hunters. She pesters the police with her ideas. More murders happen. She speaks out against hunting during the priest’s sermon. She loses her job teaching English at the local school. There more murders, and motives and clues and reveals and twists, and eventually an ending you might not expect.
If you like social commentary formatted as literary fiction, or complicated dark noir mysteries Drive your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead is for you. (You don’t have to like William Blake or even know much about his work.)
There is a 2017 movie, in Polish with the English title Spoor, which is based on the book. I didn’t find it compelling. It necessarily had to slim down the philosophical musings and number of characters but it didn’t have to add numerous bewildering flashbacks and tawdry exploitation of women. With too much clutter, and loud music, it obscured the subtle reveals, the dramatic tension and above all the all-pervasive Blakean weirdness of the book.
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