Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk tr. Antonia Lloyd-Jones

Polish Literature Novel Prize Winner Blake AstrologySomewhere on a plateau above a small forested village in Poland, near the border with the Czech Republic, lives Janina, except she doesn’t like that name, she insists on being called Mrs Duszejko.

An astute observer of things around her, she is more of a winter type, has knowledge and interest in the influence of planets and houses, likes to translate Blake’s poetry and read his letters, has great respect for all sentient beings, except perhaps those who hunt Animals for sport and take joy in it.

The novel opens as her neighbour whom she refers to as Oddball knocks on her door very early one morning to inform her that their mutual neighbour Big Foot is dead. The two visit his home and do what they thing good neighbours should do, respectfully arranging the contorted corpse, though Oddball’s son Black Coat (a policeman) later tells them off for moving the body.

Our Feet Connect Us

Mrs Duszejko observing his feet:

They astonished me. I have always regarded feet as the most intimate and personal part of our bodies, and not the genitals, not the heart, or even the brain, organs of no great significance that are too highly valued. It is in the feet that all knowledge of Mankind lies hidden; the body sends them a weighty sense of who we really are and how we relate to the earth. It’s in the touch of the earth, at its point of contact with  the body that the whole mystery is located – the fact that we’re built of elements of matter, while also being alien to it, separated from it. The feet – these are our plugs into the socket. And now those naked feet gave me proof that his origin was different. He couldn’t have been human. He must have been some sort of nameless form, one of the kind that – as Blake tells us – melts metal into infinity, changes order into chaos.

Referring to her Little Girls draws attention to another mystery, and while she doesn’t share the story of what happened to them initially, they are an absent presence throughout the story, a conundrum that will eventually be revealed, including its connection to the death of the neighbour.

brown deer under trees

Photo by Devon Rockola on Pexels.com

Described as reclusive, unconventional and eccentric, she might well be the most sane person in the village, certainly she is one of the more interesting. An intellectual and a mystic, a lover of nature, philosophy, astrological influences, animals and wildlife, surviving in a village that reveres hunting, an activity undertaken by the Commandant of Police, the local priest, the village President and other dominating types puts her in the firm minority – despite her isolation, she finds her circle within the community.

Unhappy at the way the authorities are conducting their investigation, convinced by clues she has observed – ominous deer tracks – she writes to the police bringing their attention to her theory of revenge by wildlife against the actions of hunting humans. And recalls her earlier reports to them about Big Foot’s poaching activities. Death brings another element to her theory, the effect of astrological shifts and patterns.

I could also tell that he didn’t understand everything that I was saying – firstly for the obvious reason that I was using arguments alien to him, but also because he had a limited vocabulary. And that he was the type of Person who despises anything he can’t understand.

A Community of Soul Mates

A sow on trial in at Lavegny in 1457 from The Book of DaysDizzy, a former student, now her 30 year old friend, helps with the Blake translations, though is unconvinced by some of her  theories concerning astrology and the revenge of animals, bolstered by her having discovered real animal trials, which peaked in 14th to 16th century Europe.

It was believed by many medieval authorities that ‘crimes’ committed by animals were the devil’s work and letting them go unpunished would provide an opportunity for the devil to take over human affairs.

Dizzy, who’s prone to effusive digressions on the topic of Blake’s symbolism, has never shared my passion for Astrology. That’s because he was born too late. His generation has Pluto in Libra, which somewhat weakens their vigilance. And they think they can balance hell. I don’t believe they will manage it.

Drive Your PLow Over the Bones of the Dead Olga Tokarczuk PolishWhen he challenges her for going around telling people about those Animals, concerned for her reputation, she  is outraged.

‘One has to tell people what to think. There’s no alternative. Otherwise someone else will do it.’

Another of the villagers is the young woman who runs a vintage clothing shop, a place Janina discovered one day when she was frozen through and hungry. The characters she befriends represent hope in an otherwise worrisome society.

The whole thing was a mixture of socialist café, dry cleaner’s and fancy-dress costume hire. And in the middle of it all was Good News.

That’s what I called her.  This name suggested itself irresistibly, at first sight.

Mrs Duszejko (Janina) is fed up and no longer young, she says what she thinks and doesn’t care what others think of her. She reads the signs and takes action. She’s an unexpected delightfully, transgressive heroine, of her own existential thriller.

I absolutely loved it and was surprised at how accessible a read it was, given this is an author who recently won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Her power to provoke by telling a story is only heightened by the suggestion on the back cover that her ideas presented here caused a genuine political uproar in Poland.

Further Reading

The Guardian: Interview – Olga Tokarczuk: ‘I was very naive. I thought Poland would be able to discuss the dark areas of our history’ by Claire Armitstead

Olga Tokarczuk, Author

Polish literature Nobel Prize LiteratureOlga Tokarczuk is an Aquarian, a Psychologist and Jungian expert, a Polish essayist and author of nine novels, three short story collections and her work has been translated into forty-five languages.

Her novel Flights won the 2018 International Booker Prize, in Jennifer Croft’s translation. In 2019, she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Primeval and Other Times (1996) was her first work translated into English in 2010.

Her most recently translated novel, written over six years, The Books of Jacob (2014) was published in English in Nov 2021.

23 thoughts on “Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk tr. Antonia Lloyd-Jones

  1. I am happy you loved it! I was so impressed with it and cannot wait to re-read it again. I also found it accessible, but the Nobel Prize for Literature is not always a sign of literary complexity. Ishiguro also won the Nobel Prize not that long ago and I found his recent book Klara and the Sun rather simplistic and also his poorest effort.

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  2. I did this book no favours by starting to read it while on holiday. I don’t do beaches, but it isn’t a holiday read, even so. I knew I wasn’t abandoning it, but I suspect that now is not the moment to pick it up again.

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  3. I’m so glad you enjoyed this. It’s so readable and accessible as you say, yet so layered and fascinating, so many themes to pick out and think about. Not read anything else by this author yet, though I have Flights on my tbr.

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  4. Good to hear, that you enjoyed it a good deal more than I did. I wonder if the author is into astrology as well? I noticed that “Aquarian” is mentioned in your short author biography.

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    • Yes I noticed her birthday is near mine so I added that detail and I wondered the same thing, I think it’s pretty easy to gain a superficial knowledge with a bit of research, but it wouldn’t surprise me, given the interest in Blake as well who had mystical leanings. I thought the astrology added a humorous touch while for a reader with in-depth knowledge of astrology it would have been interesting to see it being used the way it was. I thought it was really clever character building.

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  5. You’ve picked out one of my favorite quotes – the importance of feet, our link to the earth and the other creatures we share it with. Another aspect of Tokarczuk’s work I love is her down-to-earth, carefully observed descriptions of nature (place).

    I enjoyed revisiting Mrs. Duszejko in your company.

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    • Thank you Julé, I know it was rather long but I loved that quote, it was then I knew we were in goods hands. Janina’s observations were brilliantly interwoven into the story. I loved the way she introduced the villagers, every back story behind all those names she used, making it that much more universal.

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    • Thank you Carmel, I really enjoyed the style of writing and the authenticity of the character building. Do you think you might read The Books of Jacob? I’m intrigued though not in any rush to read a near 1000 page time. It will be interesting to see if it makes the Booker International longlist this week.

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      • A thousand page book…. probably not unless I become bedridden! That’s a heck of a commitment and not many authors could keep my investment for that many pages.

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  6. Great review, Claire. You’ve reminded me of so many things that I loved about this book, particularly its sense of richness with all these different themes and observations on society. I’m also really pleased that you found it such an accessible read – I completely agree, but when I chose it for my book club last year, around half of our members found it hard to get into, much to my surprise!

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  7. Pingback: The International Booker Prize Longlist 2022 – Word by Word

  8. I dipped and darted through your review and enjoyed what I read a great deal; this one is firmly ensconced on my TBR and I have the feeling that I am going to love it. Her new book really intrigues me, just the thought of it, given its expanse, in comparison to this one.

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    • This is a wonderful read and a great character, I’m sure you’ll enjoy her company! The Books of Jacob does sound interesting, but the length is really off-putting, so I’m not sure I’ll be picking it up any time soon.

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  9. Only just read this piece (moved house & a lot of catching up to do!) and was very interested that you noted Olga was a follower of Jung… I shall re-read her novels with a different perspective. Also an Aquarian! I did enjoy your reflections on the novel. When I’ve unpacked I’m planning to go back to her earlier books, Primeval and House of Day…

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