Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones
If you’ve read Olga Tokarczuk in English, or if you’ve heard of her at all, it’s likely to have been due to her 2018 International Man Booker Prize winning Flights, in Jennifer Croft’s masterful translation. Flights is the ultimate Fitzcarraldo Edition book—those gorgeous minimalist tomes in navy or white that you (read: I) just love to run your fingers over while you arrange them on your shelves in dozens of aesthetically pleasing combinations.
This linear, philosophical rumination on wanderlust was also my first Tokarczuk book, even though we had lived in the same city for a while. To my everlasting shame, I had no access to one of Europe’s best contemporary writers as I never became fluent in Polish while we were neighbours. The name was familiar though because my friends had name-dropped her in the context of their country’s culture wars. Not long before I moved to Poland, Olga Torkarczuk had published an allegedly “anti-Polish” novel. It brought her both accolades, piled on top of an already glittering two decade career, but also death threats from nationalist internet trolls. That book was Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead.
What a wonderful surprise then to discover that this novel is an immensely fun, often hilarious riff on the crime genre, featuring a literary mashup between Miss Marple, Granny Weatherwax and a more bookish version of Amy Ryan in Enchanted. Never judge a book by the fascists threatening its author, I suppose. This isn’t to say that what Tokarczuk has to say about Polish society specifically and about humanity and our relationship with the environment in general isn’t every bit as profound and important as any philosophical musing in Flights.
Ms. Duszejko is a retired bridge engineer, an astrologer and now a part-time teacher in an isolated community close to the Polish-Czech border. When the local hunters start to drop dead one by one, she suspects that the animals are taking revenge. She starts to investigate with the help of fellow eccentrics, but is at first derided and condescended to and later threatened by the local masters of butchery, men who like to spill blood in the name of tradition. They, and the readers, underestimate this “typical old biddy” trudging around with her plastic bag at their own peril. Though she is often accused of caring more about animals than she cares for people, Ms. Duszejko is in fact a wonderful study of human characters, as proven by her astute diagnostic of an Eastern European male Ailment she refers to as testosterone autism:
“…a gradual decline in social intelligence and capacity for interpersonal communication, as well as a reduced ability to formulate thoughts. The person beset by this ailment becomes taciturn and appears to be lost in contemplation. He develops an interest in various tools and machinery, and he’s drawn to the second World War and the biographies of famous people, mainly politicians and villains”.
Drive Your Plow… is the best example of what I consider to be the ultimate goal of literary fiction. It does not exist to win awards or to make you feel stupid for not reading it. For me, literary fiction’s main purpose is to make you inhabit a consciousness other than your own, to transport you into a fellow Creature’s (to quote Ms. Duszejko) deep weirdness. Some books do it very well through thousands of pages of loosely interconnected philosophical digressions, while others employ actual plot worthy of any eco-thriller bookshop shelf.
There is not much to say about the plot without ruining the experience. Just take a leap of faith. Few crime novels have a more intriguing beginning (for once, the body discovery scene does not feature a mutilated woman) or a more satisfying ending. Olga Tokarczuk can write anything. She even pauses the plot to share a traditional Polish mustard soup recipe right before the big whodunit reveal—and you will thank her for it.
Drive Your Plow Over The Bones of The Dead by Olga Tokarczuk . Translated By Antonia Lloyd-Jones and Published by Fitzgerald Editions