LEFT FIELD: Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk

Review published on September 12, 2018.

I’ve never had a problem reconciling a love for crime fiction with a love of contemporary literature. It seems to me that Tokarczuk doesn’t either. Drive Your Plow… is undoubtedly a literary novel but it falls nicely within the purview of noir too. It’s a blackly comic murder mystery that will keep you wrong footed to the very end. Tokarczuk has written an unorthodox and free-spirited thriller that has a warm beguiling lyrical style more common to contemporary literary fiction but not unknown in crime writing. The literary musings are a very clever way of distracting and subverting the genre, masking the importance of the events occurring right under our noses. So the novel is packed with themes and explorations of the human psyche. Drive Your Plow… challenges our perceptions of mental health, traditional religious beliefs and touches on the nature of good and evil – the human capacity for love and hate. There’s a sublime quality to the writing but you wouldn’t expect anything less from an author who won the Man-Booker International Prize earlier this year with her novel, Flight.

In a remote village in South Western Poland the death toll is suddenly rising. The events are related by Janina Duszejko, a reclusive woman in her sixties, much more comfortable in the company of animals, an enthusiastic amateur astrologer, a lover of William Blake and a caretaker for the properties of people who migrate for the winter. Her view of the world may be eccentric but she doesn’t miss much. Although her interpretations of what she witnesses are strange, the failure of others to listen to what she is saying is fatal. Janina isn’t happy with her own name, she would rather be an Emilia or perhaps a Joanna. Names matter, Janina recognises her neighbours by their nicknames not their given names (her sense of their character). Thus, the neighbour banging on her door in the darkness of a cold winter night is Oddball. Oddball is one of those men of a certain age who suffers from testosterone autism. A condition characterised by taciturnity, a love of tools and machines, an obsession with WWII and a liking for biographies of politicians and villains. Anyway, back to the snow bound evening and the banging on the door. Oddball in his pyjamas and boots tells Janina that Big Foot is dead. He investigated because the light was still on long after Big Foot usually goes to bed. The pair stumble towards the dead man’s cottage (Oddball owns a torch but he would need daylight to find it). There, on the kitchen floor, is the contorted body of Big Foot. Naturally, Oddball tried to contact the police to report it but this is the border and the Czech network is currently diverting the Polish service. They dress the body in a suit they find in the wardrobe but as they struggle they find a bone, sharp as a surgical needle, lodged in Big Foot’ throat, he has choked to death. For Janina this is karma, the revenge of the dead deer he was eating at the time of his death, her first expression of this belief. Looking through a drawer, Janina finds a photograph that horrifies her, she puts it in her pocket before Oddball notices. Big Foot was a poacher and a thief, Janina had rowed with him in the past and even reported him to the police commandant for his cruelty but nothing ever came of that.

The shooting party, a group of local hunters, feel entitled to indiscriminately slaughter the local wildlife, for food and for fun, they dress in camouflage. Several prominent members of the community are among their number, including the police commandant (it won’t end well for him!). The protests Janina makes fall on deaf ears. She is dismissed as a crazy old woman. Janina is convinced that the animals will have their revenge. Then the members of the group begin to die, Janina’s letters to the police explaining that the stars have predicted this are ignored. In one scene Janina, Boros and Oddball posit theories on what makes people evil; television, child abuse, authoritarian parents, not being breast fed, not being potty trained. Janina knows it is the influence of Saturn. The police continue to question the locals, rumours of smuggling and people trafficking, or bizarre motives abound. Fear and mistrust hang over the village like a pall – still someone is killing the hunters.

The title of the novel is taken from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell by William Blake: “Drive your cart and your plow over the bones of the dead.” Tokarczuk’s love of the poet comes through in the enthusiasm Janina and her friend Oddball have for the poet. This is a compassionate novel, a moral murder mystery that revels in existential philosophy and surrealism. It’s an awful lot of fun, always intriguing, and insightful. Antonia Lloyd-Jones translation of this literary thriller is remarkable in conveying the weight, the mystery and the humour of the novel so well.

Paul Burke 5/4

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk
Fitzcarraldo Editions 9781910695715 pbk Sep 2018

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