Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead
Many high-profile authors, from J. M. Coetzee to Yann Martel, have turned their attention to human–animal relations. This is often framed in terms of the “ecological turn”, apparent perhaps most obviously in cli-fi, or climate-change fiction. However, the animal story has a much greater heritage – think of Ovid’s Metamorphoses and fairytales – and is its own beast. The Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk has added her voice to the genre with Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead.
Tokarczuk’s novel, set in an isolated hamlet on a Polish plateau, often references the impacts of climate change on non-human animal species, but it also acknowledges the long tradition of stories concerned with animals. Its narrator, the old Polish woman Janina Duszejko, is obsessed with astrology, a way of understanding human beings through the lens of animals and celestial bodies. She is also obsessed with the work of the visionary poet William Blake, and each chapter begins with an epigraph or quotation from his work, which often evokes animals in offering their moral lesson. An example: “A dog starv’d at his Master’s Gate / Predicts the ruin of the State.”
The novel begins with the death of Duszejko’s neighbour, who has choked on a venison bone in his kitchen in the middle of a winter’s night. The narrator, who is called out to help tend to the man’s body, is appalled to realise that her neighbour, a well-known hunter, has killed a forest deer, a creature she describes – in ways recalling fairytales and their representations of gendered violence – as “one of those starving Young Ladies that naively let themselves be lured in winter by frozen apples, are caught in snares and die in torment, strangled by the wire”. Duszejko thus concludes that death has functioned, in the neighbour’s instance, “like a disinfectant, or a vacuum cleaner”.
There are other deaths of other men – also hunters – the police become involved, and the novel subsequently establishes itself as a serial-killer murder mystery. However, the extraordinary pleasure of reading this book lies not in finding out “who did it”, but in the defamiliarising prose, characterisation, observation and philosophy that emerge from each page. A meditation on feet, for instance, describes them as “our plugs into the socket” of the earth. Tokarczuk’s style, combining wit, uncanny metaphor, biological truth and metaphysical profundity, is unique. Her books reveal just how good literature can be. KN
Text, 256pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 13, 2018 as "Olga Tokarczuk, Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead ". Subscribe here.