‘The best conversations are with yourself. At least there’s no risk of a misunderstanding.’
First published in 2009, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, translated from Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, is a fascinating existential murder mystery, set in a remote Polish village. We enter the eccentric world of Janina Duszejko, obsessed with the poetry of William Blake and the study of astrological charts, yet chronically sick with an illness (her ‘Ailments’) which Tokarczuk chooses to leave undefined. She lives alone, socialising rarely, haunted by the ghosts of her dead mother and dogs, her days accompanied only by the television weather forecast channel.
By the end of the first page, we are immediately immersed into the unconventional mind of Janina, dismissed by everyone around her as merely a mad old woman, yet endlessly insightful and imperfectly attuned to the world around her. This comic tale of death and vengeance is richly philosophical and oddly humorous, written in witty, melancholic prose, it is an ode to anyone whose sanity is questioned purely because they refuse to conform to society’s ‘norm’.
As the novel commences, Janina is disturbed by a loud banging on her door, only to find it is her neighbour, Oddball, who informs her of the death of their fellow neighbour, Big Foot. She defines Big Foot as callous and immoral, for he “poached by every possible means” and “treated the forest like his own personal farm”. They find him lying twisted on the floor of his kitchen, having choked on the bone of a poached deer. And so begins a series of strange and violent murders, which Janina ascribes to the vengeance of the animals, noticing evidence of an animal’s presence at every crime scene. She casts horoscopes of the victims and writes persistently to the police about her findings, though is insolently disregarded. Upon revealing her theory to Oddball, she notices that “like everyone else, he took me for a madwoman, and it hurt my feelings.” Tokarczuk is able to shed light on society’s narrow perception of madness and the mistreatment of marginalised people. Janina is an outlandish, eccentric middle-aged woman; thus, her opinions are ridiculed and ignored.
The novel is tinged with existential unease and misanthropy, with the narrator constantly examining questions of her own limited existence and the world around her. She interrogates the ingrained morals of society, deeply concerned with the exploitation of animals under the hierarchical control of humanity. Janina’s deep tenderness towards the natural world is inspiring and devotional. Relentless in her search for justice, she mourns the death of animals as though they were human. Upon discovering the body of a boar in the forest, she admits to feeling a “great sorrow, an endless sense of mourning for every dead animal”. Janina asks “what sort of world is this, where killing and pain are the norm?”, where “killing has become exempt from punishment”. In her small Polish town, the lives of animals are disregarded and abused, “without any pangs of conscience”.
The book itself was criticised in Poland, a country where the rights of women and animals are regularly under attack. Thus, Olga Tokarczuk is a controversial writer, as an ardent left-wing feminist, her views are condemned by rightist groups in Poland, who label her as unpatriotic and anti-Christian.
Despite this, her novels have gained world-wide acclaim, and Tokarczuk won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2018. She concluded her Nobel lecture by claiming that “greed, failure to respect nature, selfishness, lack of imagination, endless rivalry and lack of responsibility have reduced the world to the status of an object that can be cut into pieces, used up and destroyed.” This sentiment is echoed throughout the novel, a paean to nature, with the Janina representing the small voice of hope amongst a bigoted and selfish world.
Words by Sylvia O’Hara