With a title that is crying out to be the name of a band, up there with …And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead or Godspeed You! Black Emperor, by now you probably don’t need me to tell you that Olga Tokarcuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead is great. So justified is all the praise and love for this book that my only regret is not getting to it sooner, although it is perfect to be reading it this Women in Translation Month as last year’s event was when I added it to the ‘to be read’ list.
The only problem with reviewing Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead is that to say too much about the plot would spoil the enjoyment for anyone who still hasn’t picked up a copy. So why not bookmark this review, buy one from Fitzcarraldo Editions, read it, and then come back and resume? If you don’t want to take me on trust yet, I can say that the book tells the story of Janina Duszejko, a woman-of-a-certain-age living on the Polish-Czech border in a tiny hamlet that is mostly empty over the winter. The winds are fierce, the snow and the roads are bad, but she stays to do maintenance for absent neighbours while they enjoy the comforts of the city. Mrs Duszejko hates her own first name (so much so that it seems wrong to use it!) but loves to nickname others, hence the two people living closest are to her Big Foot and Oddball, with whom she has a tacit understanding that they are there for solitude and not to befriend – or really even speak to – each other.
The neighbours and many others from the nearby village are hunters and poachers, which puts them in opposition to staunch vegetarian Mrs Duszejko, to the extent that she has complained about them several times to the authorities, but always been ignored. Her solitude ends one night when she is woken by Oddball to come and check out a light that – unusually – is still on at Big Foot’s place. When they find him dead, apparently having choked on a bone and with animals behaving strangely around the house, it is followed by other bizarre deaths that will shatter the quiet rural idyll as dramatically as a hunter’s shot on a snowy day…
Mrs Duszejko is at an age where women often become ‘invisible’ and one of the things to enjoy most about Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead is how it gives centre stage and such a distinctive voice to this character:
Once we have reached a certain age, it’s hard to be reconciled to the fact that people are always going to be impatient with us. In the past, I was never aware of the existence and meaning of gestures such as rapidly giving assent, avoiding eye contact, and repeating, ‘yes, yes, yes,’ like clockwork. Or checking the time, or rubbing one’s nose – these days I fully understand this entire performance for expressing the simple phrase: ‘Give me a break, you old bag.’ I have often wondered whether a strapping, handsome young man would be treated like that if he were to say the same things as I do? Or a buxom brunette?
But while Mrs Duszejko may be old, she is not going gently. She’s a letter-writer, unafraid of being seen as a ‘little old lady,’ or worse, as a ‘crazy old crone.’ Although life could seem lonely out in the country, missing the life she lived before her Ailments took over, she has friends like Dizzy, a former student, and Good News, who runs the village shop, and people are still drawn to her. Weather maps are a source of endless pleasure, and the joy that she takes in the animals and birds in the local countryside, naming frequent visitors like the Young Ladies, is compelling. She is deeply into Astrology and Horoscopes, the use of capital letters throughout echoing her hero William Blake. Dizzy and Mrs Duszejko are translating Blake’s works into Polish, with the book’s title coming from Proverbs of Hell. The section that details their process of translating separately then working to compile a joint version, their suggestions translated back into English from the original Polish, itself based on Blake’s English, shows the skill of translator Antonia Lloyd-Jones in bringing this Polish-Blakean language so vividly to English readers.
There is a righteous anger to some of Mrs Duszejko’s positions – that people don’t care for animals as she does or respect nature enough, that the atheist past of her youth has been replaced by a Christianity that she considers hypocritical – that isn’t being responded to or channelled:
Sometimes, when a Person feels Anger, everything seems simple and obvious. Anger puts things in order and shows you the world in a nutshell; Anger restores the gift of Clarity of Vision, which it’s hard to attain in any state.
She loves a good rant, she takes a stand against behaviour that most of her community think is fine and normal – by trying to stop a shoot or emptying Big Foot’s snares – and so convinced is she of her rightness that it is easy to be swayed by her and her Astrological divinations, even venturing to ask yourself, ‘Could they…?’ when she asserts that the animals must be taking revenge against the hunters. I thought it was interesting that Mrs Duszejko began life as a woman of science and tech, but poor health has lead her over to the ‘woo’ side. With elements of Nordic noir and a twisting mystery at its heart, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead will be enjoyed as much by fans of whodunits as by those of William Blake.
Now I am off to wonder what style of music a band named after the book would make…
Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead is my first read from Olga Tokarczuk and I am certain that it won’t be the last – especially as I also have the equally well-loved Flights on my list for 20 Books of Summer ’20.
How is your summer reading going and which books have you enjoyed this Women in Translation Month?