Olga Tokarczuk: Prowadź swój pług przez kości umarłych (Drive Your Plough over the Bones of the Dead)
Our narrator is Janina Duszejko, though she does not like the name Janina and generally refers to herself as just Duszejko. Indeed, she has an aversion to standard names and prefers to use nicknames, calling her two closest neighbours Bigfoot and Oddball respectively and giving nicknames to most of the other characters, with the main exceptions being those that have names that are (to her) indicative of their character. She lives on her own in a hamlet near the Czech border. Bigfoot and Oddball also live on their own, though Bigfoot has a dog that he treats very badly.
She does not like Bigfoot. He is aggressive, traps and poaches animals, is cruel to his dog and steals whatever he can. Indeed, Janina has reported him to the police. They did not seem too interested in the matter but did send a police car over to talk to him.
The hamlet has no official name and is often known by its German name, Luftzug, which she states, means current of air but is the German for draught (of air). It is mainly used by people from the city as a summer residence but Janina, Bigfoot and Oddball stay there all year round, even though there are huge snowdrifts and temperatures below-20 centigrade in winter. Janina takes care of the empty houses during the winter.
The book starts with Oddball knocking on her door one night. He tells her that Bigfoot is dead. He cannot get through to the police on his mobile, as he keeps picking up the Czech network. It seems Bigfoot might have choked to death on a deer bone. She finds evidence of a slaughtered deer (the head and hooves) when they visit Bigfoot’s house. Janina and Oddball tidy him up – he is lying in a contorted position on the floor – dress him and put him on the sofa. This will naturally cause them problems with the police, with the police officer concerned, to Janina’s surprise, being the son of Oddball.
The basic plot of the novel is a thriller, as Bigfoot is the first of several mysterious deaths. The police commandant, found by Janina and her friend Dizzy, Innerd, a local landowner who breeds foxes for their fur, the President of the local mushroom-picking society and the local priest are all found dead in somewhat mysterious circumstances. There are lots of theories as to who is responsible. Janina feels that the animals are doing the killing, in revenge for their being hunted. There is a theory that all these men were involved in some corruption or even terrorism. There is also rumour of some mysterious creature. Janina suggests a chupacabra. Others have more prosaic suggestions such as an escaped lion or tiger.
However, this story, while interesting and highly relevant, is only part of what this book is about. Janina is the heroine/narrator, and it is her and her ideas we follow. We learn later that she had been a bridges engineer but had to give it up with health problems. These health problems – mysterious aches and pains – continue to plague her throughout the novel and she even has to go to hospital for them. Despite the aches and pains, she carries on with her life. When she gave up the engineering job, she became a teacher. I worked at a school and taught the children various useful things: English, handicrafts and geography. One of her pupils, she bumps into in later life. He is called Dionizy but she calls him Dizzy. They are both William Blake aficionados and, indeed, both like translating Blake and talking about him, so become close friends. Blake’s world view – that there is a deeper, more spiritual world that most of us cannot or choose not to see is key to the book. (Mrs. Blake famously said I have very little of Mr. Blake’s company; he is always in Paradise.) The title of the book is (almost) a Blake quotation – the correct quotation is Drive Your Cart and Your Plough over the Bones of the Dead.
Blake’s wife may have said that her husband was always in paradise but Janina is not but she is close to it. She seems to look favourably on the Czech Republic, that gentle, beautiful country, just over the border. The weather always seem to be nicer there – It’s always warmer in the Czech Republic. The Czech language is softer than Polish. They have a bookshop nearby in the Czech Republic which has the works of Blake. It is safer – what is there to be afraid of in the Czech Republic?. The people are nicer there: I think in the Czech Republic it’s totally different. The people there are capable of discussing things calmly, and nobody quarrels with anyone else. Even if they wanted to, they couldn’t, because their language isn’t suited to quarrelling.
Associated with that is her interest in astrology. She very firmly believes that the stars can foretell our fate and she is constantly getting people’s birth dates and casting their horoscopes. She has a computer with a horoscope programme on it and that is almost entirely what she uses the computer for. Her charts tell her that the murders are associated with animals, which confirms her belief that it is the animals, turning on humans, that are responsible for the deaths.
She clearly is not only fond of animals but firmly believes that humans and animals are integrally linked and that animals should have the same respect as humans. She is opposed to killing them and and has her own private cemetery, where she buries the remains of animals she finds. She considers the local deer as her friends. She did have two dogs but they were killed, but she does not know by whom or why. She called them her little girls.
For Janina the predators are humans. She is highly critical of hunters and hunting and her fierce opposition to it gets her into trouble more than once. When she focusses on animals, she does not generally focus on their predation. Dogs and foxes are mentioned but not as predators. The animals she seems to like most are deer, and she calls them her young ladies. The one case where she really does mention animals as predators involves fieldfares. They are social birds and will combine to resist predators such as hawks. According to Janina they have a tactic of flying above the hawk and defecating on its wings. This not only impairs the hawk’s flying ability, it apparently really upsets the hawk, who is essentially a clean bird, and it has to spend a long time washing itself.
All of these views on life – astrology, Blake, love of animals – show that she sees life as a pattern (The world is a fabric, says Tokarczuk in her Nobel Prize speech) much of which cannot be seen or indeed comprehended by most humans but in which everything is integrated, including all life forms, even down to the Cucujus haematodes beetle. This view does not include conventional religion. She is ambiguous about God and gods but very much opposed to traditional Catholic dogma. Later in her speech, Tokarczuk explains this: All my life I’ve been fascinated by the systems of mutual connections and influences of which we are generally unaware.
If you read Tokarczuk’s Nobel Prize speech, which I strongly recommend, you will see clues as to what this book is about.
What first-person narratives have done for literature and in general for human civilization cannot be overestimated—they have completely reworked the story of the world, so that it is no longer a place for the operations of heroes and deities upon whom we can have no influence, but rather a place for people just like us, with individual histories.
This book is about a person, Janina Duszejko who, in many respects is an ordinary person. She is possibly based on Tokarczuk. They both live near the Czech Republic and Tokarczuk states in the speech that her fiction is not wholly invented but based on reality. Above all, she very much has a mind of her own and has her individual history, as Tokarzuk calls it.
Tokarczuk explains further her modus operandi. Every fictionalisation involves a transition from the question “What happened next?” to an attempt at understanding it based on our human experience: “Why did it happen that way?”. But she also that the world is far from prefect: there is something wrong with the world and goes further: The world is dying, and we are failing to notice. However, Janina does notice and, indeed, that is what this book is about.
Tokarczk concludes That is why I believe I must tell stories as if the world were a living, single entity, constantly forming before our eyes, and as if we were a small and at the same time powerful part of it. It is both this and the fact that Tokarczuk is such a superb writer that makes this book such a first-class novel and so well-deserving of all the praise it has received and the honours it has won.
First published 2009 by Wydawnictwo Literackie
First English translation 2018 by Fizcarraldo
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones