Death, Animals and Literature

Murder and death can both be very messy. It even gets messier and more confusing when they straddle the blurred lines of morality. This convoluted line is a source of inspiration for a throng of writers who, in turn, dive into the psychology of murder. In his literary masterpiece Crime and Punishment, Russian wordsmith Fyodor Dostoyevsky begs some critical questions. Who are permitted to live? Who has the license to kill? In Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, renowned Polish writer also explores the blurred line.

Shortlisted for the 2019 Man Booker International Prize, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, relates the story of a series of unexplained deaths that were perpetrated in a sleepy quaint village along the Polish-Czech border. It all begun with the sudden and bizarre death of Big Foot, a frequent hunter, whose lifeless was discovered by his neighbors, Janina Duszejko and her friend, Oddball, in his home. There was nothing amiss at the death scene, making Janina conclude that an animal might have caused Big Foot’s death.

Big Foot’s death was just the start of a series of disturbing deaths. Each grisly death seem arbitrary, wrapped in deep conundrums. There seems to be no clue as to who the perpetrator is. The grisly murder scenes led to all directions and to no directions at the same time. Solving these deaths, to say the least, is a daunting task. But as new layers are slowly unpeeled, disturbing facts and details begun to surface, creating more ripples that unsettled what was once a sleepy and peaceful village. To say the least, the deaths are no ordinary deaths, the murders no ordinary murders.

“You know what, sometimes it seems to me we’re living in a world that we fabricate for ourselves. We decide what’s good and what isn’t, we draw maps of meanings for ourselves… And then we spend our whole lives struggling with what we have invented for ourselves. The problem is that each of us has our own version of it, so people find it hard to understand each other.” ~ Olga Tokarczuk, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead

At the center of the crime scenes, and recounting these bizarre deaths through her own perspective, was the reclusive and eccentric Janina. After concluding that Big Foot’s death was caused by an animal, she immediately reported it to the police. Unfortunately,  her initial conclusion was dismissed by the police. With the number of villagers turning up dead, she set out to investigate on her own. The result of these personal investigations are theories that went beyond the normal.

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, on the surface, moved within the premises of mystery and detective fictions. Woven into the colorful tapestry of the narrative are different themes and subjects such as existential philosophy. The cruelty of seclusion the was powerfully depicted by Tokarczuk through the main character. The paradigm of village politics was also vividly captured in the narrative. The convergence of village politics and mystery subtly pointed to the emergence of a Polish Miss Marple. The parallels between the two literary characters were uncanny.

However, Janina’s proclivities show that she is no Miss Marple. She has a deep fascination for horoscope and how the stars impact one’s life. She would often inquire about a new character’s birthday in order to predict their fate. She also used her astrological insights to solve the mysteries. Whilst Janina’s obsession for astrology gave the story a different texture, it was Janina’s propensity for British poet William Blake that gave her more character. This cultural touchstone gave the story a fascinating complexion. The title for the book’s English translation was derived from one line in one of Blake’s poems.

The mystery occupies a healthy portion of the narrative but it was Janina who filled up the gaping holes. Her riveting and conflicting personality acted as a glue that kept the narrative together. She is singly the most intriguing character – she derives pleasure in her hermetical existence, she indulges in astrology and horoscope, she cares for the welfare of animals, and she enjoys William Blake’s poetry. Interestingly, she hates her name but it was her voice and her unreliable narration that moved the story forward.

“The human psyche evolved in order to defend itself against seeing the truth. To prevent us from catching sight of the mechanism. The psyche is our defense system – it makes sure we’ll never understand what’s going on around us. Its main task is to filter information, even though the capabilities of our brains are enormous. For it would be impossible for us to carry the weight of this knowledge. Because every tiny particle of the world is made of suffering.” ~ Olga Tokarczuk, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead

Central to Janina’s character is her keen and often insightful but unconventional observations which were often characterized by melancholy. Despite her acuity, she had a witty and humorous way of describing events and people. Called her closest friend Oddball, her neighbor Big Foot, are just examples of how she fashioned words to project the intellectual capacity of the other characters. There was a Mr. Generally, a Mr. Apparently and a Mrs. Don’t You Think, among others.

A sinister and bleak cloud hovers above the narrative. Tokarczuk demonstrated her writing repertoire by spinning an atmospheric tale. The smell of death, both of human and animals, permeated all throughout the narrative, overpowering the chilly winter air. Through the friction between Janina and the hunters, Tokarczuk touched on the fragile relationship between humans, animals and hunting. These subjects have long been the subject of several debates then and now and served to reflect the timelessness of the narrative.

Words were also cunningly used by Tokarczuk to drop hints on the story’s primordial message. In capitalizing certain words like Animals, Crime, Anger, Little Girls, Mankind and Soul, she created a secret code which was left for the readers to decipher. They seemed out-of-place at first but as their presence were repeatedly underlined, they started creating a psychological impact, establishing their role in the overall scheme of things. Words can be a very powerful tool and Tokarczuk ingeniously used it not only to obscure the novel’s message but also to construct the central character’s psyche.

Tokarczuk’s prose was excellently exhibited in this narrative that fused distinct and seemingly unrelated elements. She did a commendable job in coaxing the readers into believing the indelible link between astrology and humanly existence. It wasn’t an easy task to pull off and an ordinary writer would have been daunted by the challenge. But the 2018 Nobel Laureate in Literature is no ordinary writer and she proved her mettle by concocting an eccentric narrative imbued with meaning.

“Within our bodies disintegration inexorably advances; soon we shall fall sick and die. Our loved ones will leave us, the memory of them will dissolve in the tumult; nothing will remain. Just a few clothes in the wardrobe and someone in a photograph, no longer recognized. The most precious memories will dissipate. Everything will sink into darkness and vanish.” ~ Olga Tokarczuk, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead

The detective and mystery part of the story was underwhelming but Janina’s labyrinthine personality more than made up for its failure to propel the narrative and capture the reader’s imagination. Tokarczuk intelligently underlined several issues ranging from the personal to the profound. Miss Marple she maybe not but Janina’s eccentric voice and bizarre observations are equally memorable. In Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, Tokarczuk came up with a peculiar literary concoction that was also atmospheric and astute. It is a dark tale that mixed humor, wit, and irony in an oddly satisfying brew.

Ratings:

81%

Characters (30%) – 27%
Plot (30%) – 20%
Writing (25%) – 22%
Overall Impact (15%) – 12%

If there is one word I can use to describe Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead it would be bizarre. I was taken aback by Tokarczuk’s fusion of different elements that seem to be unrelated. The mystery I can understand, trite as it seemed. She also threw in elements of astrology, William Blake, and animal rights in a strange literary concoction. They truly seemed out of place but as one digs deeper, one is wrapped in a very atmospheric novel with several bright and intelligent spots. It was utterly bizarre but it was strangely satisfying at the same time.

Book Specs

Author: Olga Tokarczuk
Translator: Antonia Lloyd-Jones
Publisher: 
Riverhead Books
Publishing Date: 2019
Number of Pages: 274
Genre: Mystery

Synopsis

In a remote Polish village, Janina devotes the dark winter days to studying the poetry of William Blake, and caring for the summer homes of the wealthy Warsaw residents. Her reputation as a crank and a recluse is only amplified by her not-so-secret preference for the company of animals over humans. Then a neighbor turns up dead. Soon other bodies are discovered, in increasingly strange circumstances. As suspicions mount, Janina is certain that she knows whodunit. A deeply satisfying thriller cum fairy tale, Driver Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead is a provocative exploration of the murky borderland between sanity and madness, justice and tradition, autonomy and fate.

About the Author

Olga Nawoja Tokarczuk was born on January 29, 1962 in Sulechów in Western Poland.

Before shifting to literature as a career, Tokarczuk studied psychology and trained as a psychologist at the University of Warsaw from 1980 to 1985. Post-graduation, she moved to Wrocław and later to Wałbrzych. At the latter, she began practicing as a therapist. In 1989, she published her first book, Miasta w lustrach (Cities in Mirrors), a collection of poems. Four years later, in 1993, she published her first novel, Podróż ludzi księgi (The Journey of the Book-People).

Her 2007 work, Bieguni (Flights), won both the readers’ and the jury’s prize at the 2008 Nike Award, a prestigious award for Polish literature. Flights also won the 2018 Man Booker International Prize, the first time a Polish author achieved such feat. She won another Nike Award with her 2014 novel Księgi Jakubowe (The Books of Jacob). The French translation of the book  by Maryla Laurent won the  Prix Laure Bataillon Award for the best foreign-language book translated into French.

Tokarczuk has the recipient of several literary awards. Among her accolades are the 2010 Silver  Medal for Merit to Culture – Gloria Artis, the 2013 Vilenica Prize, and the 2015  Brückepreis. Her biggest literary award, however, came in 2019 when she was announced as the winner of the 2018 Nobel Prize for Literature for her “narrative imagination that with encyclopedic passion represents the crossing of boundaries as a form of life”

Since 1998, Tokarczuk resided in the village of Krajanów, along the Polish-Czech border near Nowa Ruda. She currently manages her private publishing company Ruta and is one of the hosts for the annual Literary Heights Festival.