DRIVE YOUR PLOW OVER THE BONES OF THE DEAD. By Olga Tokarczuk. Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones. Riverhead Press. 274 pages. $27.
Janina Duszejko, the narrator of Olga Tokarczuk’s “Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead,” is the very antithesis of the drifting, dislocated characters that frequent modern novels. She does not waft around, seeking a place or a purpose. Just the opposite Tokarczuk gives us a woman, opinionated and hilarious, who knows where she is and who owns her world.
In her 50s, she has ailments, suffers bouts of crying and wild dreams, loves and hates in equal measure, mourns the loss of her “Little Girls” (two disappeared dogs), and worships William Blake. Tokarczuk takes her title from Blake’s “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, and introduces each chapter with a quote from Blake (Sample: “A Robin red breast in a Cage / Puts all Heaven in a Rage”).
The plot takes off, in fable fashion, with a knock on the door in the middle of the night. The neighbor she calls Oddball has come to let her know that their neighbor Big Foot is dead. So begins the rampage of death that structures the novel. Although when he was alive, Big Foot was repulsive to her, always up to a bit of “filching, fiddling,” in death he is a fragile object. She sobs when she sees his feet, wrapped in rags. She has always considered the feet the most personal part of the body: “...the body sends them a weighty sense of who we really are and how we relate to the earth. It’s in the touch of the earth at its point of contact with the body that the whole mystery is located.” Oddball tells her, “He wasn’t worth your tears.”
The tender feelings for a human she couldn’t love and horror at the method of his death — it turns out Big Foot choked on a deer bone — set in motion the novel’s interrogation into the processes of life and death. These are great mysteries, and Janina Duszejko is a great and fallible soul. Her idiosyncratic, exclamatory style is a pleasure to read, along with her expressive attention to human and non-human suffering.
Duszejko lives where Tokarczuk herself lives, in the Klodzko Valley on the border between Poland and the Czech Republic, in the area she calls the Plateau. Her location, in a serially battered and contested country within traveling distance and sight of one she considers a paradise, is very like Duszejko’s own emotional terrain. Across the border, “the roads are straight, the streams are clear.” Goodness is within reach, as close as the Czech Republic.
She imagines that Blake would consider it one of the places on Earth where the Fall has not occurred. Even her guiding light, the planet Venus, prefers the Czech Republic. At one point, she turns her eyes across the border and thinks, “The sun flees over there. ... There my Damsel goes down for the Night. Oh yes, Venus goes to bed in the Czech Republic.”
On the narrator’s side of the border, bodies begin to pile up. Tokarczuk has said she wanted to write “something light.” “Drive Your Plow” is that book. After the first death, Big Foot’s, significant men of the Plateau turn up dead in quick succession. Next is the police commandant, whose body is in the well. An off-kilter feature of the crime scene is that the surrounding earth is covered in masses of deer prints. Looking at the body, our narrator imagines the blood-stained head turning toward her and the burly body slowly coming back to life. In her imagination, the resuscitated commandant seizes her by the throat.
The next death belongs to Innerd, a local fox farmer caught in an animal snare. The president of the mushroom pickers society, and an avid hunter, he is gnawed on and suffocated by beetles. The last man down is Father Rustle, local priest and hunt chaplain, dead of a fire in the presbytery.
In “Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead,” Tokarczuk overturns the ordinary and imagines a world not built on the fallacy of rank. Her narrator draws scorn as a crackpot when she begins to write letters to the police proposing a novel solution: animals rising up and killing their tormentors. The climactic scene defamiliarizes the familiar. At a church service celebrating the hunt, the narrator is suddenly sick of the world’s hypocrisy and bursts the bounds of silence. It is a thrilling moment, worthy of the author’s radical and demanding vision.