Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk, translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, Fitzcarraldo Editions, 272 pp, £12.99, ISBN: 978-1910695715
Olga Tokarczuk is a protean Central European writer whose oeuvre defies easy categorisation. Her works range from poetry, plays, mythic narratives (from primeval and other times), historical fiction (Book of Jacob, due out in English translation next year), and loosely bound fragments of narrative, history and arcane knowledge (House of Day, House of Night). Her novel Flights, also in this latter mode, won the 2018 Man Booker International Award. In her native Poland she has the enviable position of being an author of books seriously engaged with ideas, politics and history who enjoys a wide readership, now steadily and deservedly growing internationally.
First published in Poland in 2009 and just out from Fitzcarraldo Editions in an English translation by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead is Tokarczuk’s fourth novel. The heroine of the book, Janina Duszejko, is an outraged woman living deep in the forests of southeastern Poland. Her ire derives from the frequent sprees of killing wild animals in the mountain landscape that surrounds her home. Whether it is the hordes of hunters in camouflage who follow elaborate rituals to gun down game, or her bachelor-poacher neighbour who sets out snares with a bit of wire and “treats the forest as if it were his personal farm”, to Duszejko it’s all cold-blooded murder – indiscriminate, rampant – and she cannot bear it.
Duszejko is an unconventional woman in her sixties, a former bridge engineer from the city of Wrocław, who has moved to a mountainous region near the Czech border and is one of three year-round residents of a small village. She is plagued by physical and psychic Ailments (yes with a capital A – more on that in a bit): her eyes permanently stream with tears; her body is riddled with unexplained pains deriving, in part, from her inability to block the fury she feels at the animals’ slaughter. Yet even though she is burdened by these physical limits, Janina Duszejko is not sitting on her hands; however, enumerating how would be too much of a spoiler. Suffice it to say she is an activist.
Tokarczuk’s novel is interested in anger; it follows the neural pathways anger travels, through the interior spaces of the human sensorium and the exterior world of politics, which makes it an especially timely book in these Tweetstorm times. The book proposes anger as a force that contains the potential to effect change and “is the source of all wisdom, for Anger has the power to exceed any limits”. Tokarczuk explicates the generative energy of this “negative emotion” through a particularly feminist lens in the figure of Janina Duszejko, an unlikely action hero. Not only does she take on the local game hunters who are the rural power elite, she also fights the forces of invisibility, mansplaining and paternalism that any woman of a certain age will recognise.
While she tires of life in the patriarchy, Duszejko isn’t cowed. More than anything, she feels sorry for the other gender, which suffers from what she calls “testosterone autism” that causes “an interest in various Tools and machinery, and he’s drawn to the Second World War and the biographies of famous people, mainly politicians and villains. His capacity to read novels almost entirely vanishes; testosterone autism disturbs a character’s psychological understanding.” Still, being dismissed as a “crazy old bat” by the local police commandant is infuriating and she doesn’t take it lying down. As she says, “the truth is that anyone who feels Anger, and does not take action, merely spreads the infection. So says our Blake.”
William Blake – both as a visionary writer-artist and a revolutionary social critic, who Harold Bloom calls an “apocalyptic humanist” – presides over the novel as a guiding spirit. The book draws its title from Blake’s “Proverbs of Hell”: “In seed time learn, in harvest teach, in winter enjoy. Drive your cart and your plow over the bones of the dead.” Each of the chapters is prefaced by an extract from Blake and Duszejko’s sidekick, Dizzy, is translating “The Mental Traveller” when he isn’t working in IT for the local police. Like Blake, Duszejko capitalises her nouns, though she is selective: thus Creatures, Divine Anger, Deer, Night.
The Blakean capitalisation is one of a number of devices Tokarczuk employs to create a strange literary texture. Drive Your Plow toys with the noir genre, but to its own purposes. The material is driven forward via a series of gruesome deaths that Duszejko maintains are the revenge of beasts on the hunters. Tokarczuk gleefully imagines how these rugged individuals, who all sport the same style of bushy moustache, might meet their end: one chokes on a meat bone, one is chucked head-first down a well, presumably by a herd of deer, while another is swarmed and eaten by beetles.
In addition to the whodunnit plot line, there is also a strong mythical element, something that pervades all of Tokarczuk’s books. Duszejko is conceived as a sort of contemporary Durga, the heavily armed Hindu goddess whose righteous rage cuts away the false and spiritually deadening things of this world. It’s a heady mix and how it all works is part of the pleasure of reading Tokarczuk as she carries us along. Like Blake, Duszejko is a lonely soul tormented by the passions of her convictions; she cannot understand why others lack the mercy she inherently feels for animals. She has turned her garden into a final resting place for the remains of maimed and butchered animal bodies she encounters on her daily tours of the vicinity. These rounds are, for her, a daily tour of hell with no promise of redemption by an interventionist deity. Duszejko’s view is that God as a person-like entity couldn’t handle the job of dealing with the all the sorrow in the world. The novel’s imperative might be called an “apocalyptic inhumanism”, a striving to drive any human characteristics from the idea of God: “Only a piece of machinery could carry all the world’s pain,” Janina Duszejko declares. Astrology, instead, is the cosmic machine that Duszejko leans on. The ephemerides are her Bible; she asks everybody their date and place of birth. As a system that places humans in a larger universal context, one that sees planetary forces exerting influence on human lives as much as gravity and tides, astrology is a fitting framework for the novel’s relational ethos.
Man’s hubris in placing himself above creatures is symbolised most strongly by the elevated, wooden lookout towers the hunters use to spot game in the forests. Whether by fate or a fluke of language, “pulpit” is the word, in Polish, used to name these watchtowers – sort of duck blinds on stilts – a fact that gifts Tokarczuk with a focalising image: “In a pulpit Man places himself above other Creatures and grants himself the right to their life and death. He becomes a tyrant and a usurper.”
While Drive Your Plow undoubtedly aligns with the politics of the animal rights/vegan movements – many reviewers have focused on this – Tokarczuk’s book complicates and delineates nuances within a broader socio-historical context. The range of her aim encompasses not only the ethical questions posed by hunting and meat-eating, but also a peculiarly Polish collusion of nationalism, theology and blood sports. Tokarczuk shoots a crossbow at the consecrated position the hunt has held in her country’s national identity and in doing so challenges a formidable coalition of the power elite of nationalist Poland. From the Slavs’ early origins in the forests of Rus, to the Polish-Lithuanian nobility’s penchant for hunting in the sacred hunting grounds of Białowieża, the only remaining primeval forest in Europe, the hunt is a branch of religion and is deeply woven into the structures of Polish society. The hunt lobby presents itself as the defender of Polishness and traditional values, as the true steward of nature, culture and identity; the currently ruling Law & Justice party has fetishised the hunt for its nationalist purposes. The Catholic church is also deeply entangled with hunting: the hunting pulpit and the preaching pulpit are strangely twinned. There is a patron saint of hunting, Saint Hubert; there are even hunt chaplains, who officiate at Masses before the posses set out into the woods. In a climactic scene set in one of these Hunt Masses, Tokarczuk pieces together excerpts from actual hunt chaplains’ sermons she has sourced online. These texts fuse a shepherd’s ethos of care for the forest animals and ecosystem with a rhetoric of blood sacrifice, nationalism and domination. When the sermon’s hypocrisy becomes too much for Janina Duszejko, she loses her proverbial shit: “Hey you,” she shouts out to the priest in the pulpit, “get down from there … That’s enough.” Needless to say, that doesn’t go over well in the congregation and Duszejko’s ability to remain in this pastoral hideaway comes to an end.
While this may come as a spoiler to some, one doesn’t read Drive Your Plow to savour the delicacies of complex character and plot. The conventions of narrative float on the surface of a book which is imbued much more with questions of ethics and personal and social responsibility. Drive Your Plow aligns itself not only with Blake’s revolutionary spirit but also with the subversive energies of postwar Polish literature, the Solidarity generation that Janina Duszejko is a part of:
I grew up in a beautiful era, now sadly in the past. In it there was great readiness for change, and a talent for creating revolutionary visions. Nowadays no one still has the courage to think up anything new. All they ever talk about, round the clock, is how things already are, they just keep rolling out the same old ideas.
The moral courage Tokarczuk invokes via Janina Duszejko is not suspended in a literary vacuum, but has been culturally and politically consequential for the author. Tokarczuk’s troubling of institutions and ideologies held dear by rising Polish nationalism in Drive Your Plow as well as in Book of Jacob, which followed it, caused political quakes in Poland and elicited death threats for the author. It calls to mind a note to his poem “In the Spirit of History” in which Czezław Miłosz records that the Nazis plastered the mouths of certain writers before shooting them on the streets of Warsaw not so long ago. It is over the bones of these dead that Olga Tokarczuk drives her formidable plow.
A recent Radclife Fellow in Poetry and New Media at Harvard University, Alice Lyons is the writer and co-director of the award winning poetry film The Polish Language. She is currently the inaugural poet-in-residence with the Yeats Society, Sligo and is the author of three poetry collections, most recently, The Breadbasket of Europe (Veer Books, 2016).