book: Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead (20009; trans 2018 Antonia Lloyd-Jones) by Olga Tokarczuk

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Tokarczuk received the Nobel Literature Prize the other day, and so I scuttled along to my local library to borrow this book, which was the only one of hers they had. For once the dearth of an author’s books was actually rather cheering: Tokarczuk’s English-language translation have appeared only from pretty minor houses, and it’s always pleasing when the bravery of these financial minnows is rewarded. An earlier novel, Flights, won the Man Booker International Prize and was shortlisted for the National Book Award in the Translated Literature division. Of course, now that she’s won the Nobel I guess those little guys who backed her when the going was tough will get squeezed out by the bigger players with the fatter checkbooks. That pleases me for Tokarczuk; at the same time . . .

The cover blurb describes this as a “thriller cum fairy tale,” which sounds good but doesn’t seem to me in any way accurate. It’s one of those novels that I don’t think should be — and certainly don’t need to be — slotted into any glib genre category. You could reasonably call this a murder mystery, because the overall plot of the book does match that template; but I’d suggest such a description would rather miss the point.

In a remote Polish village, somewhere in the hills near the Czech border, live the elderly Janina (who hates her own name), our narrator, and her two equally elderly neighbors; there are other residents during the summer, but in winter there are just these three. When the roads are clear it’s possible to get into the nearest town, which is of no great size, but the three are accustomed to long periods when the snow isolates them from the world.

One of the trio dies one night, having choked on a small bone of a deer he’d poached. That’s the first of a short series of peculiar deaths in the area, all of which could possibly be grotesque accidents but which share certain characteristic that suggest there’s something more sinister at work. Janina and her few friends aren’t afraid to use the word “murder”; where Janina differs from the others is that she believes the killers were wild animals, and she points to some convincing evidence that might seem to back up her claim.

She also observes that all of the victims — assuming they are victims — were habitual hunters, which would give the deer and the foxes and the others more than sufficient motive, bearing in mind that local hunting practices seem to mirror those of the English aristocracy in Prince Albert’s time, when the aim was to slaughter as many animals as possible as conveniently/efficiently as possible rather than engage in any actual — ugh! — “sporting” contest. (Me, I’d say it becomes a genuine sporting contest when the animals can shoot back.)

The trouble is that Janina is widely recognized, even by her friends, as a fruitloop. She devotes far too much of her time to astrology, which she’s persuaded herself is the ultimately valid science. She’s a vegetarian herself and virulently anti-carnivorism in others. She writes frequent and voluminous letters to the authorities on these and other subjects. When she writes to the cops about her theory that the various casualties were murdered by the local wildlife, she backs up her argument with scads of explanations in terms of astrology. Hardly surprising that the cops file her rambling missives in the traditional under-desk cabinet.

Yet there’s truth in there somewhere . . .

If Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead were to be published as a mystery novel it would not in fact have been published at all. In other words, it flouts so many of the genre’s conventions that it’d have likely been rejected out of hand. Its plotting is the very opposite of taut, its scarcely relevant digressions copious. Its narrative drifts around like, say, the rambling thoughts of a reclusive, somewhat batty elderly woman who spends far too much of her life on her own in a snow-bound village: there are plenty of subjects that interest Janina, and she tries to make sure we discover interest in them too.

I mention all this not as criticism (I actually like narratives of this type quite a lot) but simply to explain why there’s no way that Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead fits genre expectations.

That said, I had a fair number of gripes with the novel. The long astrological expositions tended to have my eyes rolling, glazing over or doing their best to ease themselves shut. Janina’s habit of consistently giving initial capitals to various common nouns (and one or two verbs) had me briefly pausing to do a double-take every paragraph or so, and often more often; I had not realized the extent to which my reading brain regards capitals, when not on proper nouns, as indicators of sentence break. I got very, very, very irritated after just a few pages by this habit of Janina’s.

As an example of what I mean, here are the gratuitously capitalized words from a randomly selected page (p106 of the Riverhead NY 2019 edn): Young (noun, as in offspring), Fear, Terror, Boar, Animals, Liberation, Mind, Man, Poodle. Maybe the capitalization stratagem works better in Polish. If, looking at that selection, you can think of a rationale for why those words (and others) should have been chosen for initial capitalization, please do offer an explanation below.

As I noted above, the book is in many respects a mystery novel. If you read plenty of these, and if you come here expecting another, then again you’re like to be disappointed, even if you do manage to work through a text that I’m sure you’ll regard as flaccid and self-indulgent rather than, as I do, intriguingly digressive. I spotted the solution to the murder mystery fairly early on, even though my skepticism about Janina’s loonier beliefs tried to mislead me. I think it was a Bram Stoker tale (I read it many years ago) in which a cat schemed to cause the excruciating death by Iron Maiden of a tourist who’d inadvertently killed one of its kittens; that tale’s obviously a pretty tall one, but it seems to me not beyond the bounds of credulity that animals might scheme against the more evil of us. After all, rams have injured and even killed people whom they’ve perceived as having threatened their ewes.

Overall, there’s certainly a lot to like about Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, most especially the feisty, prickly, idiosyncratic character of Janina, who often had me grinning (when out at night and looking for her flashlight: “It’s a feature of flashlights that they’re only visible in the daytime” [p3]). I enjoyed the novel more than somewhat, but it never whacked me between the eyeballs to the extent that I saw it as inevitable Nobel material.

That said, the last novel I read by a Nobel Lit author was so bloody self-indulgently tediously awful that this one was bound to seem pretty good. I think, to be honest, it’d have seemed pretty good anyway, but I think I’d have liked it, with my stated qualifications, had I simply come across it without the Nobel encomium.

10 thoughts on “book: Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead (20009; trans 2018 Antonia Lloyd-Jones) by Olga Tokarczuk

  1. Absolutely fascinating review! I’m actually quite intrigued to read this at some point, maybe not in the immediate future but certainly within the next year. It’s really useful to have a good idea of what to expect (and what not to expect) from this novel. I’d already formed the impression that it wouldn’t be a conventional thriller or murder mystery but rather something more subversive and genre-bending. (Digressive seems an excellent way of capturing it.) Your review has definitely confirmed this perception!

    • Actually, by “digressive” I simple meant that the text digresses in all directions, and often at length. If you took all the digressions out you’d be left with a novella. On the other hand, most of the digressions are interesting in their own right, so . . .

      In this respect, and in this respect alone, I was reminded of Ed McBain, whose irrelevancies can sometimes turn one of his lesser plots into a great novel.

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