Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead
By Olga Tokarczuk
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones
This translation published 2018 in the UK and 2019 in the US (different publishers)
Read May 2020
As the novel opens, our narrator has been woken by her neighbor (who she calls Oddball) requesting she help him investigate another neighbor’s cottage. They find the neighbor (who she calls Big Foot) dead on his kitchen floor. Oddball wasn’t able to reach the police yet (cellphone connecting to Czech 911 vs their Polish police) and he convinces our narrator to help him dress Big Foot and put him on the couch. During this process they find a bone stuck in Big Foot’s throat, the probable cause of his demise. They eventually are able to get their Polish village’s police on the phone and the police take over the case.
Our narrator disliked Big Foot as he was a frequent poacher in the forests. We get a sense of our narrator quite early: “By now Big Foot had gone, so it was hard to feel any pity or resentment toward him. All that remained was his body, lifeless, clothed in the suit. Now it looked calm and satisfied, as if the spirt were pleased to be finally free of the matters, and the matter were pleased to be finally free of the spirt. In this short space of time a metaphysical divorce had occurred. The end.”
We eventually learn the name of our narrator, Janina Duszejko, although she insists on being called by her last name only. She was once a structural engineer who built bridges before she became a teacher. She is now semi-retired, living in a small rural community near the Czech/Poland border. Only she and her neighbor “Oddball”, and previously the now deceased neighbor “Big Foot”, stay on their hill during the winter. Our narrator watches seven summer cottages for their owners during the winter. She also teaches English at the local school a few days a week. She spends her days pouring over the poetry of William Blake and “The Complete Ephemerides, 1920-2020”, the latter being her reference for building detailed astrological charts for people based on their birth date and time. Her former student, who she calls “Dizzy”, meets with her regularly as they work on translating Blake from English to Polish.
As the winter turns to spring and summer and the police investigate Big Foot’s death, two other locals are found dead: the police chief our narrator calls The Commandant and a local fur trader and brothel owner, Innerd. These deaths give our narrator more fodder for her letters and in-person requests to the police to consider that Animals have killed all these men to avenge the murders of their brethren by these hunters. “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”.
During this period we readers are treated to the narrator’s thoughts. “The best conversations are with yourself. At least there’s no risk of a misunderstanding”. In fact the narration feels much more like a conversation the narrator is having with herself than one she is having with the reader. An entomologist she calls Boros happens into her yard one day. She gives him tea, allows him to stay a few days while he is waiting for his students to join him and then ““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.” After a time, Boros eventually stops waiting for his students and moves on.
Readers will be glad this reader reveals no further plot elements of this interesting mystery as it unfolds more of our narrator’s story and thoughts. For this reader, the mystery primarily provides our author a convenient excuse to continue drawing this special picture of our narrator. She has had an accomplished past and now is semi-retired. She is progressively isolated from those around her. Her strident animal protection speech, her devotion to astrology, and her general isolated way of life make it easy for the village to dismiss her. Her world is shrinking, especially as she lets her neighbors know she can’t be responsible for watching their cottages over the coming winter and she has to give up her teaching. A man asks her what she has done in life and she remains speechless as she considers this question and answers only to herself: “For people of my age,” she thinks, “the places that they truly loved and to which they once belonged are no longer there.” So an interesting and convenient mystery provides a backdrop for this compelling look at a woman who remains vibrant in her thinking but increasing invisible to others.
Olga Tokarczuk was awarded the 2018 Nobel Prize in Literature (awarded in 2019) for “for a narrative imagination that with encyclopedic passion represents the crossing of boundaries as a form of life”.