Review: Olga Tokarczuk, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead

I travel’d through a Land of Men,
A land of Men & Women too,
And heard & saw such dreadful things
As cold Earth wanderers never knew.

These lines, from William Blake’s “The Mental Traveller”, offer a motif for the most recently translated book by Polish author, Olga Tokarczuk. In her novel, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, the narrator and central character, anina Duszejko (who dislikes her own name even more than those of other people), discusses possible translations of Blake’s English into Polish with a friend, “Dizzie”. Blake’s poem is an often grim vision of the spiritual history of individuals and civilisations, how hope and liberty are often crushed by Urizenic forces. It is against such forces that Janina and her friends – idiosyncratically named by her as Oddball and Good News, as well as an entomologist, Boros – strive throughout a novel which is a deep, sometimes despairing, often intensely funny, meditation on ecology and mankind’s relations with the animal kingdom, the “dreadful things” which most of us choose not to know.

Drive Your Plow is one of the most Blakean novels ever written, and I would number it among a small handful, including Joyce Cary’s The Horse’s Mouth, Kenzaburo Oe’s Rouse Up O Young Men of the New Age! and J.G. Ballard’s The Unlimited Dream Company, that are suffused throughout with Blake’s ideas and words. Not only does each chapter of Drive Your Plow begin with an aphorism from Blake’s works, but Janina constantly refers to the poet in order to navigate and ground her life and actions, with Auguries of Innocence being the key to her understanding of the cold Earth in which she finds herself. With one important exception that I will go on to at the end of this review – and which necessarily involves an important spoiler to discuss fully – Janina’s actions are constantly guided by the spirit of Blake.

Olga Tokarczuk has become more widely known in the Anglophone world following the Man Booker award given to the translation of her “constellation novel”, Flights, earlier this year, which also won the Nike award in Poland when it was first published in 2007. Trained as a psychologist, her work often deals with parables and mythic elements, and she has been attacked by members of the ruling Law and Justice Party and other “patriots” as a traitor for tarnishing the reputation of Poland with her criticism of xenophobia in the country (it will come as no surprise that Tokarczuk considers herself the true patriot, precisely because she delivers such criticisms). A powerful and intelligent voice in her home country, Tokarczuk’s increasing international reputation means that her latest novel, originally published as Prowad? swój p?ug przez ko?ci umar?ych in 2009, will also receive a much wider audience.

In contrast to the fragmented, nonlinear narrative of FlightsDrive Your Plow ostensibly is a slightly more conventional – if still decidedly offbeat – book that follows Janina as she is caught up in the investigation of a series of deaths in her home town near the border with the Czech Republic. At least one reviewer has compared her to Miss Marple (a foolish and, for reasons that become clear with the novel’s conclusion, impossible comparison), but to me here character, if not her actions, are more reminiscent of Gulley Jimson, the protagonist of Cary’s The Horse’s Mouth. Like Jimson she is odd and eccentric to most of humanity, though with the ability to form very deep and intimate relations with a few human beings, and, like him, William Blake is always at hand to provide an aphorism to explain the complexities of life. Indeed, the title of Tokarczuk’s novel is taken from one of Blake’s famous proverbs of Hell in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Unlike Gulley Jimson, however, Janina is filled with a profound anger of the world.

That anger arises from the fact that her town is filled with hunters who make it their business to commit murder against the living creatures of the wilderness that surrounds them. When it was released as the film Pokot (“Spoor”) in 2017, director Agnieszka Holland caught the intense beauty of the Polish landscape in winter and summer, a beauty that made the massacre of innocents even more brutal. As one character observes in the film, the town is one of many sites of holocausts that take place across the world every day: while some critics have observed that the cryptic title of Tokarczuk’s novel could refer to the bones of murdered victims whose bodies Janina finds, a reading that makes sense if it is viewed as a more conventional crime novel, my own temptation is to see these bones as belonging to more innocent victims – the deer, boar and even Janina’s dogs who are mercilessly slaughtered if they get in the way of the amusement of men.

The amusement of men is very much a theme of the novel, which also reveals a deep feminist anger: the attitude that allows men to kill animals with impunity also enables them to treat other women as mistresses and whores when young and with contempt when, as with Janina, they inevitably grow old. That the hero of the novel was once an engineer counts for nothing: now she is seen as nothing more than a crank obsessed with astrology and animal rights, getting in the way of the real business of the town, a business that is threatened as the corpses of a hunter, the police chief, a rich entrepreneur, the mayor of the town, and eventually its priest are discovered. When Janina informs the police of her belief that the animals are taking their revenge she is treated with derision, while her complaints to the authorities that living creatures are constantly being murdered are ignored.

That it is Janina who sees herself as the angel of these creatures’ vengeance is, strictly speaking, the least Blakean aspect of the novel, a submission to corporeal assault rather than mental fight. Yet even this stems from a deeply considered misreading (if misreading it is) of Blake’s Auguries. Most people will know the poem from its famous opening invocation to “see a world in a grain of sand”, and some will also recognise lines such as “A Robin Redbreast in a Cage / Puts all Heaven in a Rage”, but I suspect that few would understand just how profound the anger of Blake’s poem is. While Auguries of Innocence is a celebration of the innocence of living creatures, it is also motivated by rage against those men who abuse such animals and, through their abuse, become inured to the poverty and injustice inflicted upon their fellow human beings. For Blake, ecological justice does not operate in isolation from social justice, and this is a vision that is shared by Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead. When Janina is told that she is crazy for telling one of the villagers not to kill animals, she responds with a Rintrah-like rage:

At that point I felt a surge of Anger, genuine, not to say Divine Anger. It flooded me from inside in a burning hot wave. This energy made me feel great, as if it were lifting off the ground, a mini Big Bang within the universe of my body. There was fire burning within me, like a neutron star. I sprang forward and pushed the Man in the silly hat so hard that he fell onto the snow, completely taken by surprise. And when Moustachio rushed to his aid, I attacked him too, hitting him on the shoulder with all my might. He groaned with pain. I am not a feeble girl. (p.72)

Like Rintrah, like Orc, like one of the devils with whom Blake converses in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Janina follows a morality that is askance, skewed from that of her fellow men. It would be more than possible to read the violence that she commits as profoundly immoral, operating against other men, but for me that ignores the deep rejection of a false society that she is forced into by men who do not care for all the blood on their hands, nor for the damage they wantonly inflict on the world around them. In a remarkable scene towards the end of the novel, Janina is forcibly expelled from a church for railing against the priest who blesses the hunters. This priest corrupts the story of Saint Hubert, a murderer of animals who is converted to Christianity when he feels compassion towards his prey, into a panacea for those who wish to kill. The church, like the police and the school in which Janina occasionally works, are symbols of a mundane, deep-rooted repression that is sanctioned by church and state. When such daily violence is blessed by angels, Janina believes that she has no choice but to cast her lot in with devils.

 

Olga Tokarczuk, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, trans. Antonia Lloyd-Jones, Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2018. RRP: £12.99.

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