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the complete review - fiction
Drive Your Plow Over
the Bones of the Dead
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- Polish title: Prowadź swój pług przez kości umarłych
- Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones
- Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead was made into a film in 2017, Pokot, directed by Agnieszka Holland
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B+ : not quite convincingly dressed up as a whodunnit, but otherwise very good
See our review for fuller assessment.
||Paloma van Tol
|The NY Times Book Rev.
|World Lit. Today
From the Reviews:
- "Sardonic humour and gothic plot-twists add a layer of macabre rustic comedy. Antonia Lloyd-Jones, an outstanding Polish-English translator, sculpts Janina's English voice (complete with Blakean capitalisations) with panache. (...) The resolution feels perfunctory; Ms Tokarczuk deploys a trick that will be familiar to Agatha Christie fans. Still, she knits satire and philosophy with a deliciously droll touch." - The Economist
- "Sur les ossements des morts passe avec malice de l'intrigue criminelle et zoologique au pamphlet politique sans concession" - Baptiste Liger, L'Express
- "Seasoned thriller fans may guess who, or what, is behind the murders early on, but the novel is so richly layered that it has a multitude of other satisfactions to offer. Tokarczuk seems to reinvent herself with every book she writes, and between clinical descriptions of corpse-wax, meditations on ageing and the tenuous pleasure of surrogate families, this novel will upturn your expectations." - Nilanjana Roy, Financial Times
- "Tokarczuks Buch ist also ein Tierschützerroman, vor allem aber ist es ein Krimi, oder besser: Es ist beides gleichzeitig, wobei es dem kriminalistischen Plot nicht an Humor mangelt. (...) Nach dem etwas langatmigen und gattungsmäßig komplizierten Unrast hat Tokarczuk ein leichtes, unterhaltsames Buch geschrieben. Mit den Meistern der Kriminalliteratur kann sie es nicht aufnehmen - dazu sind der Plot und die Lösung des Rätsels zu einfach -, doch das hatte sie auch gar nicht vor. Ihr Roman ist ein Pastiche, der mit bekannten Mustern der Gattung spielt und dieses Spiel mit viel Ironie und skurrilem Witz betreibt. (...) Kurz, sie zeigt erneut ihr ganzes stilistisches Können, zu dem noch einiges mehr gehört: die Kraft und Präzision der Sprache, die Genauigkeit der Beschreibung, die jedes noch so kleine Detail greifbar macht, die Zeichnung der Figuren, die bei aller Skurrilität etwas seltsam Anziehendes an sich haben." - Marta Kijowska, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung
- "The novel is almost impossible to categorise. It is, in effect, a murder mystery (.....) (I)t is also a primer on the politics of vegetarianism, a dark feminist comedy, an existentialist fable and a paean to William Blake. (...) Though the book functions perfectly as noir crime -- moving towards a denouement that, for sleight of hand and shock, should draw admiration from the most seasoned Christie devotee -- its chief preoccupation is with unanswerable questions of free will versus determinism, and with existential unease. (...) In Antonia Lloyd-Jones's translation, the prose is by turns witty and melancholy, and never slips out of that distinctive narrative voice. (...) It is an astonishing amalgam of thriller, comedy and political treatise" - Sarah Perry, The Guardian
- "Nun ist ihr Gesang der Fledermäuse erschienen, ein Roman, über den man rätseln mag, nicht nur, weil er sich mit seiner haarsträubenden Kriminalgeschichte rätselhaft gibt, sondern auch, weil er eine Autorin von europäischem Ruf dabei zeigt, diesen entschlossen zu verspielen. (...) Einen Roman, der lauter in ihrer Kauzigkeit geradezu mechanisch konzipierte Charaktere aufbietet, einen völlig unglaubwürdigen und untauglichen Plot hat und reichlich esoterische Plattitüden verstreut, kann selbst die beste Übersetzerin nicht in ein poetisches Meisterwerk verwandeln." - Karl-Markus Gauß, Neue Zürcher Zeitung
- "Translated with virtuosic precision and wit by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, Tokarczuk's prescient, provocative and furiously comic fiction seethes with a Blakean conviction of the cleansing power of rage: the vengeance of the weak when justice is denied. (...) (E)legantly subversive" - Jane Shilling, New Statesman
- "This marvelously weird and fablelike mystery (.....) As this thriller quickens, larger theoretical questions about the perception of sanity, the point of suffering and the clarity of anger (...) blanket the plot. Meanwhile, the political commentary becomes more pronounced (.....) This book is not a mere whodunit: It's a philosophical fairy tale about life and death that's been trying to spill its secrets." - Sloane Crosley, The New York Times Book Review
- "(A)n oddity: a crime novel set within a more expansive text (.....) This is a fierce book, an invective against cruelty to animals. Yet it's peppered with weird bits of knowledge, some of them so bizarre that even a Google search leads to no clear yes or no answer." - Jeff Noon, The Spectator
- "Les Sudètes deviennent le cadre fabuleux d'un règlement de comptes qui touche au fantastique, un pari que la romancière n'a pas pris le risque de tenir jusqu'au bout, préférant l'élucidation finale. Tant pis: Olga Tokarczuk se sert d'une trame policière transparente pour écrire une très belle fable sur notre rapport aux bêtes et aux hommes, et pour tracer un portrait acerbe de la société de la province polonaise." - Isabelle Rüf, Le Temps
- "For the most part, her character's harangues about the hypocrisy of organized society and the suffering inflicted on animals are both harrowing enough and true enough to make compelling reading." - Evelyn Toynton. Times Literary Supplement
- "Once again, Tokarczuk proves herself to be a master of the "thinking novel," fashioning what is simultaneously a compelling narrative, measured essay, and fierce manifesto. She never hesitates to preach from the literary pulpit, but her lessons have aged gracefully; what could be a trope of eco-feminist dystopia has arrived in such a fitting contemporary context that its implications have never been so far-reaching or so urgent." - Hannah Weber, World Literature Today
Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers.
Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.
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The complete review's Review:
Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead is narrated by Janina Duszejko, who lives by herself deep in the countryside in rural Poland, right across from the border to the Czech Republic.
If she initially appears to be an aging woman living in humble circumstances and near complete isolation -- who does keep the TV on all day, but only tuned in to the weather channel, and whose hobby is making horoscopes (though she admits: "I'm not a good Astrologer, unfortunately") --, it slowly does become clear that, while keeping to herself a great deal (admitting also: "I don't like belonging to any sort of society" -- meaning, in this case, a club-like organization, but almost as true for her generally), she is very much a part of the local community -- human as well as animal.
She is, in fact, an active sort of citizen -- complaining and writing to the authorities about various local issues that trouble her.
During the winter months -- and the novel begins in deepest winter -- she has a caretaker-gig, keeping an eye on several nearby houses whose owners only come for the summer, taking care of small repairs and making sure no one has broken in.
She used to be a teacher, and still goes into town to teach one day a week; it turns out that, before she was a teacher, she was an engineer.
And once a week, every Friday, a former student of hers, Dionizy, called Dizzy, comes over for a meal and to get her advice on the William Blake translations he is working on.
Duszejko comes across as a somewhat crotchety woman with some distinctive idiosyncrasies, already evident in the presentation of her narrative, with selective nouns capitalized -- Ailments, Night, Mankind, etc.
She also generally doesn't refer to people by their given names -- she's not a fan of given names, especially her own:
I regard the one that's written on my identity card was scandalously wrong and unfair -- Janina.
I think my real name is Emilia, or Joanna.
Sometimes I think it's something like Irmtraud too.
So she has epithets for the people she deals with -- referring to her neighbors as Oddball and Big Foot, for example.
These two, her only year-round neighbors, generally keep to themselves as well, but the novel begins with Oddball waking Duszejko up to enlist her help, as he's found Big Foot dead.
Big Foot was murdered -- and he's not the last local to die a suspicious death over the course of the next months.
And Duszejko has a theory about what's behind it: "it's Animals taking revenge on people".
And Duszejko can't blame them -- she is very much on the animals' side.
Duszejko has a beef with the local hunters.
She's an animal lover -- and deep in mourning for her much missed Little Girls, her two dogs, who disappeared shortly before the story opens.
The casual brutality with which the hunters -- and neighbor Big Foot -- treat animals hurts her to the quick.
And she, and Tokarczuk, present this attitude as symptomatic, and defining:
"Its Animals show the truth about a country," I said.
"Its attitude toward animals.
If people behave brutally toward Animals, no form of democracy is ever going to help them, in fact nothing will at all."
(Duszejko also frequently contrasts local conditions with those just across the nearby border, as the Czech Republic is a sort of idyll for her -- "that gentle, beautiful country", where the animals are also both much safer and happier.)
If formerly (literally, in her engineering days) a bridge-builder, Duszejko is now much more confrontational, complaining vociferously about the hunters' behavior -- including, finally, even in a church service where she causes a scandal -- but also taking action, having, we learn, destroyed pulpits -- hunting towers (which, she notes: "bear a strong resemblance to the watchtowers in concentration camps") in the hope of at least slightly sabotaging the hunters' horrible activities.
Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead is a bit of a murder mystery, with the nasty deaths certainly making for an ominous feel, and a decent bit of suspense, but Tokarczuk only gets so far with that -- and the resolution feels rather a cop-out.
The rest of the book, however, is more impressive, with specially the narrative voice a compelling -- and highly entertaining -- one.
Duszejko is full of surprises, and for all her crotchety ways does have a small social circle (into which Oddball is also pulled).
She is an oddball herself, and some of her beliefs and opinions are way out there -- notably her astrological obsession -- but this doesn't drag her story down much.
So too her militant animal-defense hardly overwhelms the novel; there's a great deal else here too.
Blake figures prominently in the novel, from the title (taken from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell) to the chapter-epigraphs to Dizzy's translation-project -- with Duszejko presenting several of the translation-issues that crop up, itself a fascinating translation-problem for Antonia Lloyd-Jones in having to render these back into English (which she handles with aplomb).
Tokarczuk does impressively manage to avoid making Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead an angry novel.
Despite all of Duszejko's rage -- pent-up and acted out -- there's a gentleness to the book, as well as quite a bit of humor; Duszejko's frailty help in this regard, as well as the cast of (those who prove to be very much) supporting characters.
There is harsh criticism here, however, especially of the way animals are treated -- with Tokarczuk's(-via-Duszejko) condemnation also extending considerably wider:
This is a land of neurotic egotists, each of whom, as soon as he finds himself among others, starts to instruct, criticize, offend, and show off his undoubted superiority.
(Here, too, across the border is presented as an other-world: "I think in the Czech Republic it's totally different".)
If the conclusion is a bit too easy and simple, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead is nevertheless a strong work, and assertive, independent Duszejko a very engaging character and narrator.
- M.A.Orthofer, 5 March 2020
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Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead:
Pokot - the film:
Other books of interest under review:
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About the Author:
Polish author Olga Tokarczuk was born in 1962.
She was awarded the 2018 Nobel Prize in Literature.
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© 2020 the complete review
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