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.

A Voice of Her Own: Maryse Condé wins Alternative Nobel Prize for Literature

Due to an ugly scandal involving allegations of sexual harassment and corruption, there was no Nobel Prize for Literature awarded in 2018. Apparently it will resume next year, however to fill the gap, an alternative prize was awarded by The New Academy, a one-off to replace it. They describe themselves like this:

The New Academy was founded to warrant that an international literary prize will be awarded in 2018, but also as a reminder that literature should be associated with democracy, openness, empathy and respect. In a time when human values are increasingly being called into question, literature becomes the counterforce of oppression and a code of silence.

I didn’t know this was happening, but I can’t help but wish to celebrate it, given the winner of the prize for 2018, was Maryse Condé, one of my very favourite writers, whom I discovered in 2015, when her lifetimes work was nominated for the Man Booker International (MBI), in the old format, when that prize was held every two years and for a body of work, not a newly published title.

Maryse Condé

Maryse Condé didn’t win the MBI prize that year, but she was the writer I chose from the long list to read and following her advice in an interview about where one should start with her writing, I began with her extraordinarily beautiful essays Tales From the Heart, True Stories From My Childhood.

Maryse Condé is a Guadeloupean writer who was the eighth child in her family and as such, the one who knew her mother for the least amount of time and her grandmother she knew not at all. Her mother was a wilful, determined woman, who rose herself up through education, married a successful banker and made sure her own children were well-educated.

Her writer’s instinct and curiosity  had her wondering about what had gone before her, what had made her mother into the woman she knew and observed, one who many found too severe. Condé decided to find out all she could about her grandmother, researching by talking to everyone who knew them.

‘The story is, of course, about my grandmother but the real problem was my mother. I lost my mother when I was very young — fourteen and a half. And during the short time that I knew her I could never understand her. She was a very complex character. Some people — most people, the majority of people — disliked her. They believed she was too arrogant, too choleric. But we knew at home that she was the most sensitive person and I could not understand that contradiction between the way she looked and the way she actually was. So I tried to understand as I grew up and I discovered that it was because of a big problem with her own mother. She seems to have failed; she had the feeling that she was not a good, dutiful daughter. I had to understand the grandmother and the relationship between my mother, Jeanne, and her mother, Victoire, to understand who Jeanne was, why she was the way she was, and at the same time understand myself.’

Slowly she pieced together a picture of not just her grandmother, but the generations of women in her family, who’d followed a similar, tragic pattern in their lives of being used by men and left to raise children alone. Condé’s mother was determined to break the cycle, which she did, but by doing so, she also planted a seed of desire in this youngest daughter to want to know about her roots. It wasn’t just her immediate family she knew nothing about, but her own country, her descendants and the country and culture or their birth.

She set off, not just in search of grandmothers and great grandmothers, but in search of the Kingdom of Segu, about which write an incredible historical novel, Segu (see review) and it’s sequel The Children of Segu, which I have not read yet.

Though her books were all published in French, Condé had the fortune to be married to the translator Richard Philcox, so most of her novels were translated into English, although she is much less well-known in the English reading world, than here in France.

She visited Aix-en-Provence a few years ago, and I had the privilege of being in a packed audience listening to her speak animatedly on a variety of topics.

When asked which of her books was her favourite, she mentioned The Story of the Cannibal Woman, which I had on my bookshelf, so that became my next read, a story set in South Africa, which had similarities for me to Yewande Omotoso’s The Woman Next Door. Unfortunately she is almost blind, so I don’t know if she will be publishing many more books, I certainly hope so.

In 2011 Françoise Vergès a French political scientist, historian and feminist, wrote and collaborated with Maryse Condé, a documentary called ‘une voix singulière’ a journey into the life and mind of Condé through her particular voice and world view. It is in French but with subtitles.

Alice Munro wins Nobel Prize for Literature

Alice MunroShe was a favourite to win the prize, but appears not to have been aware of being nominated, no doubt she has been enjoying her retirement from writing fiction announced earlier this year.

Alice Munro is the 13th women to have won the Nobel Prize for Literature, news to which according to the Guardian, she is said to have responded “Can this be possible? Really? It seems dreadful there’s only 13 of us.”

Not just a resounding win for a short but growing list of women writers finally being recognised, but a victory for readers and writers of the short story, Munroe’s strength and preference.

Could it be a sign that the short story is making a comeback? It is something I wonder about in one of my very first blog posts entitled Why People Don’t Read Short Stories which is a tribute to the form and a reminder of the joy short story collections can bring.

short stories

Alice Munro

aliceBorn: July 10 1931, Wingham, Ontario, Canada

Educated: 1949-51 University of Western Ontario

Books:     1968 Dance of the Happy Shades

1971 Lives of Girls and Women

1974 Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You

1978 Who Do You Think You Are?

1983 The Moons of Jupiter

1986 The Progress of Love

1990 Friend of My Youth

1994 Open Secrets

1996 Selected Stories

1998 The Love of a Good Woman

2001 Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage

2004 Runaway

2006 The View from Castle Rock

2009 Too Much Happiness

2012 Dear Life

Further Reading:

Feature Article Alice Munro: Riches of a double life, the Master of the contemporary Short Story, Guardian 2003