Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk – translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones
Though it’s a fine multiple-murder mystery, it’s the narrator who makes Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead such a compelling read. Meet Janina Duszejko, semi-retired school teacher and amateur astrologer, who leads a quiet life on a tough plateau in rural Poland. She’s among the very few who can tolerate the dreadful winters there, and among of the first on the scene when a neighbour turns up dead one snow-laden night.
The early chapters signal Janina’s singular perspective on the world. She rejects most given names for people, preferring labels that sum up her immediate impression of their character or physicality – hence Bigfoot, Oddball, Good News, The Grey Lady, and more. All animals she encounters have their nouns capitalised, and some are granted names (as with Consul, the fox that criss-crosses the Czech border). It’s a clue to her intense respect for the natural world.
She holds a wide range of pet theories (‘Theory’ is also always capitalised), leading to many brilliant digressions: on the ‘testosterone autism’ of middle-aged men, on how weather reports offer a useful typology of all people, on overused expressions, on ‘Lazy Venus syndrome’, on the beautiful art of translation (her buddy Dizzy whiles away hours crafting Polish versions of William Blake), on the power of Anger. It’s a rare protagonist who contains so many eccentric, often contradictory notions, but Janina is somehow totally believable. She’s peaceable and belligerent in equal measure, pitiable and frightening at the same time. Like Drive Your Plow, this earthy thriller full of cosmic thinking, she is unforgettable.
I look forward to reading more of Olga Tokarczuk’s writing, hopefully translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, whose work here is outstanding.