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26 September 2018

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead: Olga Tokarczuk’s grimly comic tale of death and vengeance

Translated with virtuosic precision by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, Tokarczuk’s fiction seethes with the cleansing power of rage

By Jane Shilling

In a house on the edge of a forest, there lived an old woman. If this sounds like the beginning of a Grimm fairy tale, the resemblance is apt. Aspects of dark fantasy permeate Olga Tokarczuk’s grimly comic tale of death and vengeance, set in a remote forested plateau on the border between two realms, with a cast of intelligent animals, ghostly apparitions, celestial influence and humans who resemble trolls, witches, giants and goblins.

In her native Poland, Tokarczuk is a controversial celebrity: the recipient of numerous literary awards and, after the publication of her prizewinning 2014 novel, The Books of Jacob, the subject of violent criticism, accusations of treason and death threats by Polish nationalists. To English-speaking readers she is perhaps best known for her sixth novel, Flights, which was awarded the 2018 International Man Booker Prize.

Tokarczuk has described her fictions, which combine stories with non-fiction, essayistic meditations, maps and diagrams, as “constellation” novels. While Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead adopts a more conventional narrative structure, it too is a “constellation” novel – the sequence of its events and the destinies of its characters mapped by the movements of the stars.

That, at least, is the conviction of its narrator, Mrs Duszejko, an amateur astrologist and former bridge construction engineer driven by her Ailments (eccentric capitalisation is a distinctive feature of her narrative voice) into semi-retirement in a small village in the Kłodzko Valley, a mountainous region in south-western Poland near the Czech border. There she lives alone, her television permanently tuned to the weather channel, working part-time as an English teacher and caretaker of the village’s summer holiday homes, while helping her friend and former pupil, Dizzy, with his translations of William Blake’s poetry.

In winter her neighbours are few and uncongenial: the taciturn Oddball, whose passion for order and dislike of conver-sation causes Mrs Duszejko to diagnose him with “testosterone autism”, a common affliction of middle-aged men, whose symptoms are “a gradual decline in social intelligence and capacity for interpersonal communication, as well as a reduced ability to formulate thoughts”. Her other neighbour, Big Foot, is a drunken poacher and petty criminal, “like a small evil sprite, malevolent and unpredictable”.

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It is to announce Big Foot’s death that Oddball makes an unaccustomed visit to Mrs Duszejko one winter’s night. Outside the dead man’s cottage they find two deer standing “as if we had caught them in the middle of performing a ritual whose meaning we couldn’t fathom”. Inside, Big Foot’s body lies twisted, his hands to his neck. At Oddball’s insistence, they clothe the half-naked corpse, and in doing so they discover the cause of death. Big Foot has choked on a bone of the deer whose butchered head and hooves lie nearby. Leaving the cottage as the police arrive, Mrs Duszejko takes with her the remains of the deer, which she intends to bury. She also removes Big Foot’s identity card, from which she hopes to calculate his horoscope, and a photograph, the sight of which fills her with horror and rage.

As the seasons turn, further deaths follow. The dead are middle-aged men, local authority figures and keen hunters: the commandant of police; his crony, Innerd, a wealthy fur farmer and brothel owner; the president of the Penny Buns Mushroom Pickers’ Society; and a priest, Father Rustle, killed in a fire after celebrating a mass in honour of St Hubert, patron saint of hunters.

Mrs Duszejko casts their horoscopes (an activity viewed with scepticism by Dizzy, who reminds her that in Dante’s “Inferno”, astrologers are punished with horribly twisted necks), and writes to the police with her findings, urging them to consider that “the perpetrators of the above-mentioned tragic incidents could be Animals” and citing historical cases in which animals were tried and convicted of murder. The police, having previously ignored her demands that they investigate the mysterious disappearance of her two pet dogs, continue to dismiss her as a batty old lady.

The novel takes its title from Blake’s revolutionary text, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, and each chapter has an epigraph from Blake, extolling unfallen nature, and excoriating those who violate it. “There’s nothing natural about nature any more,” a well-meaning forester assures Mrs Duszejko. “It’s too late. The natural processes have gone wrong and now we must keep it all in control to make sure there’s no catastrophe.” Drive Your Plow is a manifesto against such control, which, it argues, is not the antidote to catastrophe but the catastrophe itself.

Translated with virtuosic precision and wit by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, Tokarczuk’s prescient, provocative and furiously comic fiction seethes with a Blakean conviction of the cleansing power of rage: the vengeance of the weak when justice is denied. “What a good thing death can be,” Mrs Duszejko reflects, contemplating Big Foot’s limp body, once so cruel and destructive, now harmless. “How just and fair, like a disinfectant or a vacuum cleaner.” Her aperçu, with its invigorating combination of the mystical, the vengeful and the domestic, perfectly encapsulates the essence of this elegantly subversive novel. 

Olga Tokarczuk appears at the Cambridge Literary Festival on 17 October

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead
Olga Tokarczuk. Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones
Fitzcarraldo Editions, 272pp, £12.99

This article appears in the 26 Sep 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory Brexit crisis