October 2018

Noted

‘Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead’ by Olga Tokarczuk

By Helen Elliott
Cover of ‘Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead’
Offbeat intrigue from a Booker Prize winner

Well. Where to begin to approach this dazzling writer? Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich used the word “magnificent” to describe Olga Tokarczuk’s work. Tokarczuk is the Polish writer who won this year’s Man Booker International Prize for the translated edition of her 2007 novel, Flights; now we have Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead (Text Publishing; $29.99), first published in 2009. “Magnificent” is best explained here by the practical application: I have ordered all her translated novels.

Duszejko, Tokarczuk’s heroine, is a woman in her 60s who lives alone in a remote Polish village close to the Czech border. She used to be an engineer, and built some bridges in unusual parts of the world; now she teaches English one morning a week to the children in the village school. The rest of the time she looks after several holiday houses for the summer residents. Most of the novel takes place in mid-European winter, that time of year when it is obvious “that the world was not created for Mankind”. The snow buries everything, and this winter it is going to bury several bodies. All men. All murdered. By? And why? This is what Duszejko and her friends want to know.

These friends are outsiders like herself, and the acerbic and intuitive Duszejko has private names for each. As she does for her neighbours. Her nearest neighbour is the obsessively organised taciturn man she calls Oddball, and it is his hammering on her door one night that reveals the first death and begins the investigation. Their other neighbour – she calls him by the tart Bigfoot – is lying dead in his living room. His disgusting living room, his more refined neighbours note.

With her young friend, Dizzy, Duszejko is translating the works of the great English poet and artist William Blake into Polish. It’s a near impossible task, but they persist with intellectual and emotional fortitude. Blake’s words, in both his letters and poems, speak directly to their sensibilities. And then there is the astrology. Duszejko’s astrology is not the magazine daily star guide but lifelong learning based in algebra and erudition. She understands astrology as a universal explanation for an individual condition, and applies this conjunction in her daily life. In everything she does, Duszejko radiates intelligence.

Tokarczuk is a writer who feels the heartbeat of the natural world. The winter landscape turning to spring is fantastical but not fantasy. It is also teeming with living creatures and this, of course, draws the hunters. Duszejko is one of those who can hear the noise on the other side of silence. Hunters are her mortal enemies.

Each chapter has a Blake epigraph, and the final chapter has this: “The tigers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction.” Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead is a thrilling demonstration of Blake’s words. Or is it a warning? One of the exhilarations of this novel is working through a complex truth about living among others on the beautiful blue planet.

Helen Elliott
Helen Elliott is a literary journalist and writer.

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