Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk (transl. Antonia Lloyd-Jones): Animals have rights, too.

Cover imageKeen readers of translated fiction will recognise Olga Tokarczuk as the winner of this year’s Man Booker International Prize but it was Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead’s backdrop that attracted me to it. It’s set in southwest Poland, not too far from WrocƗaw where H and I spent a few days of our last railway jaunt. In case you’re wondering about the spelling in the novel’s title, it’s derived from a William Blake poem, one of its narrator’s passions along with astrology and animals.

One winter’s night Janina Dusezjko is woken by a hammering on her door. It’s Oddball, her taciturn neighbour, asking for help with the local poacher who he’s found dead in his house across the way. Janina and Oddball wrestle the corpse into respectability, dressing it in a suit before contacting the police. Janina is convinced that Big Foot has been murdered as an act of retribution by the deer whose fellows he’s spent a lifetime hunting. She’s a fierce protector of animals, furious with the hunters who carelessly shoot them, leaving their carcasses to rot. As the seasons wear on, she continues her caretaking duties, spends a day a week teaching, enjoys her weekly suppers with Dizzy, a keen translator of Blake, casts horoscopes and misses her dogs who disappeared not long before Big Foot’s death but events in the remote valley where she lives take a dark turn. Bodies are piling up: first the police commandant, then a couple of businessmen and finally the priest. Rumours of corruption are rife but these four men all have one thing in common which holds the key to their demise.

Tokarczuk tells her story through the singular voice of Janina who hates her own name and dubs others with tags that she feels are more fitting. She’s an eccentric character, written off as an ‘elderly old bat’ by the police for her theories of animal revenge and insistence that everyone’s lives are written in the stars. Tokarczuk carries her narrative off with a good deal of humour while making serious points about hunting and hinting at corruption in Polish society, the murder motive which tops the town’s gossip list. There’s a thread of suspense running through the novel, all neatly resolved at the end, but her skill is in the creation of such an idiosyncratic, engaging narrator. Tokarczuk has described this novel as much more traditional than Flights which bagged her the Man Booker International Prize, a book I may have to investigate.

15 thoughts on “Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk (transl. Antonia Lloyd-Jones): Animals have rights, too.

  1. Liz

    I am so pleased to read this review, Susan, thank you. I am a big fan of Fitzcarraldo Editions and had been wondering whether to go for this – you make it sound like a cracking read. I’ll definitely be interested to hear what you think about Flights too. 🙂

    Reply
    1. Susan Osborne Post author

      You’re welcome, Liz. I wasn’t sure what to expect from it as the blurb mentioned magic realism, something I usually avoid, but it turned out to be not that at all.

      Reply
  2. buriedinprint

    It seems so funny to think of this one being the more traditional, as it doesn’t quite sound like the “run of the mill” story either! But, from what I’ve heard of Flights, I can see where the comment could still be true, given the exuberantly experimental style it seems to possess.

    Reply
    1. Susan Osborne Post author

      Janina’s hardly you’re straight down the line reliable narrator that’s for sure but given that Flights has already gained so much attention I suspect the publishers have erred on the side of caution.

      Reply
  3. Naomi

    I love the title of this, and it sounds like I’d like the narrator as well!
    It sounds very different from Flights (from what I’ve heard of it, anyway.)

    Reply

Leave a comment ...

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.