Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead an Unusual Treat

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead (2009/2018/2019)

By Olga Tokarczuk

Riverhead Books, 275 pages.





Here’s a book that took a very circuitous path to winning the 2018 Nobel Prize for literature. You’ve probably never heard of it and unless you read Polish, you could not have read it until quite recently. Author Olga Tokarczuk has written nine novels and is one of Poland’s most beloved writers, but this work was originally published in 2009. It wasn’t translated into English until 2017, and there was no U.S. edition until last year. Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead­–the title comes from William Blake–is a short book, but not necessarily a quick read. That, as it turns out, is a good thing. You will wish to take your time plumbing the mind of its main protagonist.


Drive Your Plow takes us to southwest Poland, a stone’s throw from the Czech border. It is there we meet Janina Duszejko and heaven help you if you call her Janina, a name she detests. She is an odd duck on many levels, including the fact that she’d never harm a waterfowl. She was once a construction engineer, but now she’s one of the few year-round residents in the Table Mountains and spends the dark months as a caretaker for summer homes, teaching English and geography a few days a week at the local village, casting horoscopes, and filing complaints with the local police about hunters. She’s a vegetarian, an informal naturalist, an animal rights activist, and a full-time pain in the ass. We hear her voice throughout the novel and, to emphasize her eccentricities, Tokarczuk capitalizes words that wouldn’t require it within the context. Duszejko suffers from “Ailments,” has bouts of “Anger,” and has a “Theory” about everything. She’s the sort that doesn’t bother with formal names–either because she can’t remember them or thinks her nicknames are better. Thus, her neighbors sport handles such as Oddball, the Writer, and the Professor. The young, bald woman at the secondhand shop is Good News and a former student who drops by for help translating Blake is Dizzy (given name Dionizy).


She is known to most as simply “Mrs. Duszejko,” though we know nothing about a husband, the only hint of him perhaps being a cryptic remark. When explaining why she, a non-practicing Protestant, doesn’t care much about Catholicism, she remarks, “For some time I shared my bed with a Catholic and nothing good came of it.” Her remarks on a variety of subjects are laughout loud funny. Like her “Theory” on beauty: “The aim of evolution is purely aesthetic–it’s not to do with adaptation at all.” Or why anger is a good thing: “Anger puts things in order and shows you the world in a nutshell. Anger restores Clarity of Vision, which is hard to obtain in any other state.”


Mrs. Duszejko is angry a lot. She’s angry that her “Girls,” her two dogs, have disappeared and the police aren’t doing anything about it. She’s angry that a rich neighbor is raising foxes for fur, that quarrying is eating away at the mountain, that the world is divided into “useless and useful,” and above all, that local hunters are blasting away at any animal they see. When she finds the carcasses or bones of the animals they have slaughtered, she collects and buries them. Then she files a formal complaint with the police, though she thinks they are idiots. Then again, the only people she doesn’t think are idiots are Dizzy, an entomologist named Borys, and maybe her Oddball.


A bigger problem in the area begins when Big Foot, her name for one of her neighbors in the “idiot” category, is murdered. She is positive the deer have killed him to avenge his butchering of a member of their herd. Her proof? The horoscope she calculates and the presence of hoof prints around the murder site. Crazy, huh? Then how do we explain other victims found under similar circumstances?


Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead is a very unusual book. It is very literary, yet Duszejko seems to be–to use another waterfowl reference­–as crazy as a loon. Duszejko may abuse capital letters, but she’s clearly very smart. Maybe her “Theory” on interjections applies: “…every single Person has their own expression which he or she overuses or uses incorrectly. These phrases are the key to their intellect.” Her own intellect begs the question of how she can take seriously her own theories about astrology or murderous animals, or how she doesn’t seem to realize what a crank she is. This is a rare book in which humor, murder, and eccentricity comingle. Perhaps the only thing twistier than how these three elements resolve is the route taken by Olga Tokarczuk on her way to the Nobel Prize.


Rob Weir

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