Rating 11 stars
I eyed up Olga Tokarczuk’s novel Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead for a long time after its publication, resisting its simple but elegant dark blue cover each time I saw it on display in a bookshop. I finally succumbed earlier this year and now my European book tour brings me to Poland and it’s reached the top of my To Read pile.
I feel like I’ve visited Poland indirectly already through my virtual visits to Lithuania and Kaliningrad, because of the nation’s changing geography and political influence in that north eastern corner of Europe. I’ve yet to visit Poland in reality, though. I found this list of the top ten places to visit in Poland and I want to visit all of them. I remember Poland being in the news a lot in the 1980s with reports about Lech Walesa and the Solidarity trade union he started in Gdansk. He spearheaded the democracy movement in Poland and, in 1990, was the first Polish president elected by popular vote since 1926. So I’m choosing Gdansk as my virtual destination.
Gdansk has similarities to Vilnius and Kaliningrad in the complexity of its history. It has variously been part of Prussia and Germany as well as Poland, and has spent time as an independent city state. Living in Manchester, which I often wish was an independent city state, I like the sound of that. Something else links each of the cities that I’ve visited so far: the Hanseatic League. Stockholm, Kaliningrad and Gdansk were all members, and Vilnius was an important trading point for Hanseatic goods.
Culturally, much of Gdansk was destroyed during the Second World War. The razing of the city enabled extensive archaeological excavation, revealing much about the city’s mediaeval past. The 1950s and 60s saw a lot of heritage sites rebuilt in the Old Town, including Europe’s largest mediaeval port crane shown jutting out on the right in the picture above.
More recent visitor attractions include the Museum of the Second World War, which explores “the history of the civilian population who lived through the Second World War, as well as the uniqueness of the Polish experience compared to other nations”. Gdansk’s more recent history is covered in the European Solidarity Centre, popularly known as the Solidarity Museum.
There are lots more places to visit in this Lonely Planet guide to the city. Maybe one day I’ll make it there.
Olga Tokarczuk isn’t from Gdansk. She was born 436km away in Sulechów. Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, her eighth novel but only the fourth to be translated into English, is set in a remote Polish village in the Kłodzko Valley, close to the Czech border. Its protagonist is a reclusive woman in her sixties, one of three people in the village who didn’t close up their homes in October to winter elsewhere. She’s awoken from sleep at the start of the novel when one of the other permanent residents comes to tell her that he’s found the third one dead.
The opening scenes reminded me of a number of Nordic Noir thrillers, with its cold, dark, unfamiliar landscape and its reticent and begrudging characters. There’s a dark humour to Janina Duszejko, the principal character and narrator. Her opening statement lets us know precisely who she is.
I am already at an age and additionally in a state where I must always wash my feet thoroughly before bed, in the event of having to be removed by an ambulance in the Night.
The way Tokarczuk captures scenes in words pulled me straight into the narrative. On the second page is this gem of a description of Oddball, the neighbour who wakes Janina.
Outside, in the pool of light falling from the porch lamp, the snow was changing into a slow, sleepy shower. Oddball stood next to me in silence, tall, thin and bony like a figure sketched in a few pencil strokes. Every time he moved, snow fell from him like icing sugar from pastry ribbons.
This is the sort of writing that reminds me that I will only ever be an average writer. As well as wonderfully rendered depictions of people, across the novel, as the seasons change, Tokarczuk finds the perfect words to deliver a sense of time and place. It’s quite magical.
Her descriptions of the landscape conjured images in my mind. I sought out photographs on the internet to confirm that what I saw in my head was right, and it was.
Reporting the death proves tricky, as the local mobile phone signal has a habit of wandering from the Polish network provider to the Czech one along a dividing line that shifts unpredictably.
The dead man, known as Big Foot, was a poacher, a man who lived entirely off the land but showed no respect for it. A man who pilfered from his neighbours. Janina would follow him as he set traps and remove them, to protect the animals she loves. She is not sorry that he is dead. Oddball forces Janina to assist him in tampering with the scene. Together, they move Big Foot to his couch bed, and dress him in more respectable clothes. The intimacy of these actions forces Janina to reflect on who Big Foot was, what had happened to him to make him such a misanthrope. Tokarczuk is a clinical psychologist and her knowledge of the science and theory of psychological dysfunction underpins this novel. Janina says she is not interested in psychology, but her view of her neighbours and their behaviours has about it an element of trying to understand their motivation and potential past experiences. Janina, however, puts more faith in the mystical art of astrology. Birth dates are the fodder for her assessments of people’s characters, the alignment of the stars her explanation for why things happen when and how they do.
While Oddball is away from the house, trying to find a Polish phone signal, Janina searches for Big Foot’s identity card. She also finds a set of photographs, one of which depicts a scene that makes her so angry her head spins. She doesn’t tell us what is in the photograph, but the hint is that it might be connected to Big Foot’s death.
Janina recounts her adversarial relationship to Big Foot, and in so doing also reveals the change in attitude that women often experience once past a certain age. Janina is in her sixties. She notices that even men who are the same age as her treat her as though she is much older, a crazy old crone, and someone not to be taken seriously. It becomes permissible, she notes, for other people, not just men, to be impatient with her, and she ponders whether it was always so, but she didn’t notice it when she was younger. There’s a parallel change in attitude towards men that Janina observes when the local prosecutor turns up at Big Foot’s house. He is also the son of Oddball and treats his father with a mix of respect and frustration that is focused on Oddball’s age. Gender roles come to the fore, too, when Big Foot’s friends come to his house to hold a wake. Janina is again roused from sleep and expected to place candles around the body and lead the men in singing, simply because she is a woman.
I liked Janina and her persistence in living life according to her own values. She has the trappings of modern life – a mobile phone, a laptop, satellite TV – but is only interested in them in as far as they are useful to her. She tunes the TV only to the weather channel, and is philosophical about the information she takes from it. For Janina, the satellite imagery is a reminder of how small we are, and how precarious our lives. The changes in information from season to season support this view, particularly the allergy forecasts that, for Janina, demonstrate that humanity is “fragile as filigree”, and one day nature’s attacks on our immune systems will finish us off.
Janina’s past is an interesting one, gradually revealed as the novel progresses, to surprise the reader once they have pigeonholed Janina as an outsider with unique views on the world. By profession, she is a structural engineer who built bridges around the world before what she calls her Ailments forced her to return to Poland. She took up teaching Year 3, until her methods no longer fitted with the prevailing teaching theory, and she was left with a one day a week job in a village desperate for a teacher, the village she now calls home. I found this trajectory interesting because the mum of one of my university friends was a teacher and I remember how she would roll her eyes at how the latest thing being taught in teacher training had been old hat a couple of times over during her long career. I don’t know why I am always surprised to discover that things I think of as uniquely and weirdly British are the same in other countries. We are all human, our cultures built on the quest for novelty masquerading as progress, it shouldn’t surprise me that we all do similar things. I wonder how the conversation would go in a room full of experienced teachers from education systems across the globe.
I also liked Janina’s sustainable approach to life, reusing the things that others throw away, living off the land but not off the animals who share the land with her. She has firm views on what makes someone a good citizen, and holds everyone, even the local figures of authority, to her standards. All of which makes her a crank in the eyes of the people she lives among.
Her description of the way most of the houses in her village are second homes for city dwellers made me think of the situation in places like Cornwall and Devon, where local residents are increasingly priced out of the housing market or losing rented homes because landlords are cashing in, and homes are left largely empty outside of the holiday season. As Janina points out about her own village, it destroys the community. And yet she takes on the responsibility of checking her absent neighbours’ homes during winter, ensuring that no weather related disasters happen to them.
Her regular seasonal neighbours are the Professor and his wife, from whom Janina acquires cast off clothing and whose children are more frequent visitors than they are, the Writer woman, whom she depicts as entirely grey, “a survivor from Pompeii”, and a noisy family from Wrocław, who had ambitions to rebuild and transform their damp, rotting house into “a miniature Polish manor”. The fourth house is a rental, occupied by the random holidaymakers who “passed through our hamlet like shadows.”
Through Janina’s description of the Writer, Tokarczuk examines the nature of writing and the relationship between writers and their subject matter.
If I hadn’t known her so well, I’m sure I would have read her books. But as I did know her, I was afraid to open them. What if I found myself described in them in a way that I couldn’t fathom? Or my favourite places, which for her are something completely different from what they are for me? In a way, people like her, those who wield a pen, can be dangerous. At once a suspicion of fakery springs to mind – that such a Person is not him or herself, but an eye that’s constantly watching, and whatever it sees it changes into sentences; in the process it strips reality of its most essential quality – its inexpressibility.
No such danger with Tokarczuk, who has a keen eye for the inexpressible details that make up reality.
Janina has a friend, Dizzy. He’s a former pupil of hers who shares her passion for the English Romantic poet and artist William Blake. I liked the way Tokarczuk draws quiet parallels between Blake’s reputation during his life for being a crank, with his mystical beliefs and private mythology, and Janina’s own reputation in the village. Together, Janina and Dizzy work on translations of Blake’s work into Polish, refining collaboratively their attempts to render Blake’s uniqueness into their mother tongue. Dizzy tracks down copies of Blake’s works, and one day finds a rare volume in a bookshop across the border in the Czech Republic.
Dizzy works in IT at the police service. When Janina and Dizzy find a second dead body up on the ridge above the village, Dizzy immediately knows whose it is – that of the Police Commandant. Janina has recently had a run in with a group of hunters, some of them friends of Big Foot, and the second victim was also among their number. On his body is a packet of money amounting to 20,000 zlotys, roughly £3,600. The scene is surrounded by the hoofprints of a group of hungry deer that has been hanging around the village. They were also present outside Big Foot’s house on the night of his death, and Janina develops the theory that these deer are somehow the perpetrators of the deaths, that they are taking revenge on the hunters. She also tries to find predictions for the deaths in the horoscopes of the two dead men. Both of these approaches to unravelling the deaths are dismissed by Dizzy, who is too pragmatic to believe in the advanced sentience of deer or the alignment of celestial bodies.
Janina is waiting one day in the secondhand clothes shop run by the friend she calls Good News when she hears about the mysterious disappearance of a local landowner and fox farmer. Conversation in the shop centres on his involvement with the Russian mafia. Shortly after, Good News closes the shop and joins Janina and Dizzy on a trip to the Czech bookshop. On the way, Dizzy shares more information about the landowner’s disappearance, as well as about him being the potential source for the money found on the Commandant’s body.
There’s a very funny episode involving the local dentist who practices illegally from his front garden and only treats patients during the spring and summer, when there’s enough daylight to see into their mouths. The way Tokarczuk describes the scene had me laughing out loud, from the dentist’s back story to the depiction of his methods. In between the comedy is a discussion of the two deaths and the disappearance, and how they might be linked. Janina has paused to watch the dentist at work and finds acceptance among the waiting male clientele for her theory of animal revenge. Most of all, though, the dentist agrees with her.
‘They should take revenge for all of it,’ said the Dentist. ‘Animals should fuck it all to buggery.’
‘Quite so. Sodding well screw it into oblivion,’ I followed his lead, and the men glanced at me with surprise and respect.
The body of the missing landowner turns up. The circumstances of his death are simultaneously banal and unusual. Janina’s theory that it is animals leading people to their deaths, now that she’s shared it with the dentist and his clients, has caught on and others who come to watch the police investigation of the death scene speculate about how animals might have done it this time. Janina’s theory about the landowner’s death is that wild foxes drew the him away from his fox farm into a trap. Everyone assumed he’d run off with his lover, so nobody went to look for him when he disappeared.
The subtext to this novel is the importance of not making assumptions about the way the world works and the ways in which people behave. Janina is vigilant, she notices the small things, and she’s curious, not interested in accepting the conventional explanations people use to avoid becoming involved in something. This is another reason I liked her. I might not share her belief in astrology, but I admired her willingness to look elsewhere for answers. Dizzy also is vigilant, and pursues his own theory about the deaths, making use of his position in the police IT department to gather information and conduct his own investigation.
Tokarczuk has the Writer express what happens when we make assumptions and ignore other possibilities.
‘You know what, sometimes it seems to me we’re living in a world that we fabricate for ourselves. We decide what’s good and what isn’t, we draw maps of meaning for ourselves… And then we spend our whole lives struggling with what we have invented for ourselves. The problem is that each of us has our own version of it, so people find it hard to understand each other.’
There’s a heart thudding moment when a fourth man dies, the honorary president of the local mushroom pickers’ society. He’s a friend of the Commandant and the landowner, a fellow hunter. My heart thudded because of the circumstances leading up to his death, something that sheds a different light on the other deaths and who might be responsible.
The position held in the community by the mushroom pickers’ president means that the police start to work harder on solving what is now clearly a series of linked crimes. Everyone in the small community is interrogated. It transpires that the Commandant, the landowner and the president all died of the same cause, and only the surface circumstances made their deaths seem different. And then the local priest dies soon after he consecrates a chapel to the local patron saint of hunting, and preaches that hunting is beneficial to society and to the planet. The heart thudding moment holds true and the murderer is revealed. It’s not the revelation I wanted, but at the same time it’s a revelation that makes perfect sense.
The 2009 film adaptation of Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, screenwritten by Tokarczuk, was denounced by a Polish news agency as “a deeply anti-Christian [work] that promoted eco-terrorism”. Tokarczuk is a controversial figure in Poland. She has a large readership, but her personal politics are at odds with the prevailing right wing movement in the country, leading her to be regularly denounced by the state and the newspapers that support the government. Her epic The Books of Jacob examines the antisemitism and colonialism in Poland’s past, prompting outrage among the Little Polanders (to coin a phrase) who, like the generic British, prefer to dwell on Poland’s pluckiness during the Second World War.
I loved Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead. It’s brilliantly translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones. I’m thinking of it already as a favourite book and will definitely read more by Tokarczuk. Maybe not The Books of Jacob just yet. I need the world to be different before I immerse myself in a book that runs to more than 1000 pages. Perhaps Flights will be my next foray.