Daniel Davis Wood reviews Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead (trans. Antonia Lloyd-Jones)
Constellation is the word that kept popping up in media coverage of Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights (trans. Jennifer Croft) earlier this year, especially after the novel won the Man Booker International Prize. Flights is narrated by a middle-aged Polish woman who leads an unashamedly itinerant lifestyle, a wanderer whose “energy derives from movement — from the shuddering of buses, the rumble of planes, trains’ and ferries’ rocking” — and her story is interspersed with depictions of other people in similar states of perpetual transit. But the novel does not go so far as to connect its cast of characters; the reader is ultimately responsible for finding significance in the relationships between their movements. “[J]ust as the ancients looked at the stars in the sky and found ways to group them and then to relate them to the shapes of creatures or figures”, observed Claire Armitstead, in conversation with the author, “so what [Tokarczuk] calls her ‘constellation novels’ throw stories, essays and sketches into orbit, allowing the reader’s imagination to form them into meaningful shapes.”
Tokarczuk’s latest novel, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead (trans. Antonia Lloyd-Jones), is not exactly a “constellation novel” in the vein of Flights, but its narrative absolutely hinges on the interpretation of “constellations”. This is literally true, since sections of the novel spell out the theoretical basis of astrological predictions, and it’s also metaphorically true, since Drive Your Plow revolves around a mystery which the narrator must solve by uncovering the significance in a series of apparently unrelated events. Janina Dusezjko is an elderly woman, a retired teacher, living alone in the Kłodzko Valley, in the remote southwest of Poland. It’s clear from the very beginning that her world is unstable; she didn’t quite retire voluntarily, but lost her livelihood when she found she couldn’t navigate the boundaries of pedagogical professionalism, and now she has retreated to a place so far from the centre of Polish society that the cellular network often connects her to a Czech operator: “The signal wanders”, she says, “with no regard for the national borders. Sometimes the dividing line between operators parks itself in my kitchen for hours on end [and] its capricious nature is hard to predict.”
Janina’s voice, outlook, and sensibility are the greatest pleasures of Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead. She is a unique creation: cantankerous, dogged, judgmental, vociferous, outcast, insistent — deeply sympathetic to some, curt and dismissive of others — as well as being eloquent, caustic, and bitingly funny. Although she is perhaps skirting the edges of sanity, she’s so charismatic that there’s joy in going insane in her company. It’s no surprise to learn that Tokarczuk trained as a psychologist before she became a writer, nor that she credits Sigmund Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920) as the book that inspired her to begin writing. Her narrator, here, is basically a spokesperson for the wild interpretive possibilities of the mind, and to observe her from a remove is to become aware of the tenuous, highly subjective links between her actions and their significance, her behaviour and her apparent psychological frailty.
Quirks and idiosyncrasies — occasionally irritating, often charming — illustrate Janina’s lack of social graces and offer glimpses of the meaning-making apparatus whirring away inside her head. She refers to her fellow villagers exclusively by the nicknames she gives them, such as “Big-Foot” and “Oddball” and “Moustachio”. She capitalises nouns, including abstract nouns, in a way that personifies the forces she thinks are in control of human affairs: “the Night”, “the Sun”, “Death”, “the Practical”, “the Sentimental”, “Outer Space”, “my Ailments”, “my Theory”, “a Surprise”, and so on. One of the most important nouns for Janina is “Creatures”, because she feels a closer attachment to the natural world than to the human one. In fact, throughout the novel, she voices concern for “Hares, Badgers and Deer”, “the Wolf”, “Dogs”, “Birds”, and “Bugs”, and she even refers to a herd of deer as “Young Ladies” who might be her daughters, her “Little Girls”.
Also, she is fanatically attached to the poetry of William Blake: she has devoted much of her life to translating his poems into Polish, she quotes him liberally, and even the title of the novel is an abridged line from Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell (ca. 1793). Importantly, too, Janina is fluent in the language of the zodiac, defaulting to astrological interpretations of the world: she believes not only that a person’s moral character is determined by the stars at the time of their birth, but also that events are directed by the vicissitudes of the zodiac. Given that she narrates in service of solving a mystery, connecting causes with effects, she is a narrator of legendary unreliability, a match for the likes of Frederick Clegg and Humbert Humbert.
All of these character details are crucial to the plot. The action kicks off with the untimely death of one of Janina’s neighbours. She and an acquaintance discover the body and find that the dead man appears to have choked on a deer bone. Janina isn’t especially sorry to see him go; he was a poacher and she is somewhat thrilled by the irony of his demise:
As I slowly became aware of what had happened here, I was gradually filled with Horror. He had caught the Deer in a snare, killed her, then butchered, roasted and eaten her body. One Creature had devoured another, in the silence and stillness of the Night. Nobody had protested, no thunderbolt had struck. And yet Punishment had come up on the devil, though no one’s hand had guided death.
But then this first death is followed by several others, each of which also involves animals in some way. Is their presence coincidental? Is it a carefully orchestrated disguise for somebody’s foul play? Or does it perhaps have an entirely different cause? Janina comes to believe that the animal kingdom is pursuing vengeance against the hunters who have exploited the fauna of the valley for far too long. In the face of justifiably skeptical authorities, Janina insists that she can prove her theory by cross-referencing the star signs of the victims with the conditions of the zodiac at key dates. So maybe she’s right, after all. Or maybe she’s just bonkers. Or, then again, maybe both of those things are true.
If you’ve heard anything about Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead before now, you probably know that it sparked some controversy in Poland. First published in 2009, it was adapted for the cinema last year, with a script co-written by Tokarczuk and the director Agnieszka Holland. The controversy has something to do with what happens after Janina pieces together her theory. If not technically an animal rights activist, Janina is at least a fervent believer in animal rights, animal agency, and even animal sovereignty over territory. Her beliefs bring her into conflict with the political structures that rule the Kłodzko Valley, most notably a police service bent upon preserving the rights of hunters, and also with reactionary cultural forces that take umbrage at anyone who casts aspersions on the traditional sanctity of man’s dominion over the natural world. The figurehead of these cultural forces is a representative of the church, the local priest, Father Rustle, who delivers an incendiary sermon against Janina’s views, and indeed against any emotional attachment to the non-human world:
Make the land your subject. It was to you, the hunters, that God addressed these words, because God makes man his associate, to take part in the work of creation, and to be sure this work will be carried through to the finish. The hunters carry out their vocation of caring for the gift from God that is nature consciously, judiciously and sagaciously…
So, in a ferocious stretch of writing — a section that takes up one-tenth of the entire novel, in which the pace accelerates, the rhetoric soars, philosophies clash, and the drama reaches a high pitch — Janina finds herself culturally excommunicated, and her oddball investigation of some unusual deaths grows into a full-blown crusade against the powers that be.
No doubt, by this point, readers who discovered Tokarczuk with Flights will suspect that Drive Your Plow sounds like something rather different. It certainly is, and there’s no escaping the feeling that it’s a comparatively minor work. That’s not necessarily to fault the novel on its own terms. Like Flights, it does something exciting, something structurally daring, in casting onto the page a handful of dissociated topics and striving to foreground the spirit that unites them. Unlike Flights, however, it doesn’t leave much to the reader’s imagination, as the whodunit narrative and the consistent first-person narration work together to funnel everything through Janina’s consciousness. The connections between events are explicated and streamlined, closing down the spaces for speculation that Tokarczuk meticulously carved into Flights. Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead is a simpler book, more of a closed circuit, so carefully and holistically constructed as to seal off the access points that would invite readers to participate in making it meaningful. To put this in terms that William Blake would appreciate, it’s a beautiful book that arrives in the wake of a sublime one; it is thoughtful and suspenseful, cinematic and gripping, but its beauty is easier to regard and admire than to immerse oneself in.
Where there is some common ground between the two books is in their dedication to working through the implications of their narrator’s distinct perspective on things. If there is such a thing as “an Olga Tokarczuk novel”, in the most particular sense of the term, then it is likely to be defined by this quality. In Flights, taking a narrator with a gleeful commitment to itinerancy, Tokarczuk elaborates on the ways in which this commitment flows through to all other aspects of the narrator’s being in the world: her choice of words, her affinities, her politics, her ethics, her lens on everything that passes before her eyes. In Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, Tokarczuk takes an even more peculiar narrator — one who wants to be, in a sense, something other than human, or else to be a human being in a world that accords no special status to humankind — and again she shows how these peculiarities colour the narrator’s view of things, her conception of the phenomena she encounters, her way of looking outwards from herself.
What’s impressive about Tokarczuk’s project isn’t the intrinsic oddity of the narrators she prefers; it’s the strangeness with which they paint our familiar world, and the thoroughness of Tokarczuk’s efforts to exhaust the experiential consequences of their divergent worldviews. The project is a risky one. It would be easy, after all, for a narrator like Janina Dusezjko to become irritating or exasperating, superficial or twee, but Tokarczuk and her translators consistently steer clear of the dangers with a skilful lightness of pace and style. The result, in Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, is an uncommon fusion of seriousness and eccentricity, of philosophising and page-turning pleasures, which confirms Tokarczuk’s talents without quite flaunting them and suggests that her body of work contains further gems worthy of translation.