Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead—Olga Tokarczuk

[I decided to read this 2009 novel in three sections. I wrote about each section before reading on, so I never knew where the author was heading with it.]

1 January 2019
Chapters 1-5
Tokarczuk’s first-person narrator, living her confusing, unsatisfactory little life on a forested plateau left almost deserted in winter, might be some sort of Everywoman. She does her best to make sense of the contradictions of an almost entirely male world that belittles her concerns or ignores them altogether, and whose systems and assumptions she hates. We gradually discover how she has created her own system of logic and morality based on compassion for all living creatures and a cosmic order she would love to understand more fully. Given names are arbitrary—she hates her own, Janina Duszejko—so her two winter neighbours are Big Foot and Oddball. Despite her difficulties with it, she knows the universe to be an orderly place, and if only we could catalogue every chance event, the fall of every sparrow—a phrase she doesn’t use, because it isn’t a quotation from William Blake—we would see how they are in perfect accord with the movement of the planets. She knows that if she had the expertise, nothing would ever again be a mystery to her.

I’m reminded of another first-person narrative, the almost hallucinatory The Wasp Factory (1984) by Iain Banks. Instead of a secluded plateau, almost cut off by snow, it takes place on a near-island often cut off from the mainland, and the narrator has clearly spent far too much time alone there. A homegrown world-order is in place there too, with its own rituals and laws presented as though they are perfectly logical rather than almost completely mad. And when sensational things happen the reader is doubtful not only about the narrator’s account of them, but whether in fact they took place at all…

…and, in fact, almost all these things are true of Tokarczuc’s novel too. The narrator’s eccentricity tips over into what sometimes sounds like madness—in Chapter 5, she is woken by the sound of her mother in a different room, and we are not at all surprised to discover that she has been dead for years. She also has her ‘Girls,’ imaginary children (I think) whose innocent joie de vivre is the opposite of the narrator’s ponderous plod. She routinely refers to her ‘Ailments’, but in fact hers is a world of visions, with William Blake as its governing imagination. The novel’s title, and the epigraphs for the chapters, are all quotations by him, and Dizzy—not his real name—is a former student of hers who now translating the great man’s work into Polish. Fine.

But I could have described these five chapters in a completely different way. It begins with the narrator being shocked into wakefulness by the presence of Oddball banging on her door, to tell her that he’s discovered that their other neighbour is dead. And for the rest of the first chapter the ugly corpse is the main concern. They lift it, despite the narrator’s revulsion, then lay it flat, clean it, and dress it in a suit. They eventually discover that Big Foot seems to have died by choking on a bone from a deer he had killed—a deer which had been one of the four that the narrator had come to regard with affection. For some time, she had been fighting a fruitless campaign against Big Foot’s hunting habits, even attempting to have the police prosecute him for illegal poaching. To the police, she has long been the crazy old woman from the sticks. She sees the death as a kind of judgment, and attempts to get Big Foot’s birth details so she can draw up a full horoscope of his life and death.

Fast forward to Chapter 5. Dizzy, on his regular weekly visit to discuss Blake (in spite of the narrator’s fading memory of the great man’s work), has noticed a light on the road in the distance. He gets the narrator to accompany him, and—it’s another dead body, in a car. It’s that of the police commandant who had earlier been condoning, even encouraging, local men out on a hunting spree in the forest. This time they don’t disturb the death scene so much, and they wonder about the prints in the snow all around. She is convinced they are hoof-prints left by deer who must have killed the commandant in an act of revenge—another judgment on a man who has no regard for the welfare of the creatures of the earth. She speaks these thoughts aloud to Dizzy, who seems taken aback by the bizarre idea. But she knows what she knows.

So, alongside ideas about the human condition, and humanity’s place in the wider scheme of things, there might be an emerging murder mystery. But who could be responsible? Oddball? It seems impossible. The narrator herself, completely unconscious of what she’s doing? This seems more plausible—certainly more so than the idea of nature rising up against the tyranny of mankind. Or maybe this is the wrong way to think about this novel, in which every last element can be interpreted allegorically. The plateau is a tiny wilderness surrounded by the depredations of the human world, with its motorways, arbitrary national boundaries—the Czech border is nearby—and a population that has no regard for anything in the world but its own needs. This narrator might seem on the verge of madness, but there isn’t much wrong with her vision of a world out of joint. I wonder if Tokarczuk is a vegetarian. (I just googled her name, and she’s associated with the Green party in Poland. No surprise there.)

What else? The narrator does what we all try to do, live her life as best she can. She spends the winter trying to cope with physical and mental health issues that nobody except a doctor in the town attempts to understand. He’s a dermatologist, not a therapist, but his sense of his own duty of care leads him to prescribe her a lot of medication. I take this to be Tokarczuk’s satirical commentary on the way mainstream medicine deals with mental health. She herself trained as a psychotherapist, a biographical detail that helps, I think. What she’s offering us is a microcosm of a recognisable world presented as terrifying by a narrator who doesn’t have the mental or emotional resources to deal with it. She draws up her horoscopes, does small-scale caretaking duties for the owners of the four or five houses only occupied in the spring and summer, and tends her own garden as best she can. Maybe we should all try to do that.

4 January
Chapters 6-11
Stuff happens but, aside from another death 90-odd pages after the previous one, not a great deal of stuff. It isn’t what’s important, I guess, because what’s interesting (or fairly interesting) is Tocarczuc’s choice of narrator. I decided, more or less as soon as I picked up reading again, that she’s the one to watch, because Tokarczuk is playing a game with us. Mrs D is so clearly unreliable that we’re forced to wonder whether the author is deliberately wrong-footing us. Everything she says sounds ridiculous, but what if most of it is actually true…?

And there’s another, related puzzle going on: what kind of narrative is this? Could it be a straightforward murder mystery, but narrated by someone whose own agenda is so particular that we have no way of evaluating her evidence? Or is she, the narrator, unreliable in a different way, hiding from the reader (or from herself) crimes that she has committed, possibly while hallucinating or in some other fugue-like state? Or are these crimes exactly what the narrator thinks they are, defining the narrative as a magic realist or Jungian (or Blakean) fantasy about the natural world taking its revenge on mankind? This would make her not unreliable at all, whatever we might think about her astrological calculations. (I hope Tokarczuk won’t decide to go with the least interesting possibility, that there is no simple solution to the mystery, so that the rationalists in the book can explain the deaths one way, and the animists another.)

The third death isn’t confirmed until Chapter 11. Before that, there is an animal death that causes the narrator a lot of anger—or Anger, because she likes to capitalise key words—and we are witness to her visit to the police station in town. Tokarczuk does that thing where we are on the police’s side to begin with, imagining how we would deal with the crazy woman. But, over some pages, we begin to understand her outrage. When she makes the point that nobody thinks for a moment either about the illegality of the shooting of the boar nor the pain it must have suffered, we know she’s right. And as these middle chapters unfold, there’s a slow accretion of a back-story for her—who would have guessed that she was once a well-regarded bridge engineer then, when her Ailments made this impossible, a teacher? Tokarczuk seems determined that we take this nutter seriously (nutter being a word Mrs D herself supplies when Oddball is looking for the right way to describe her and her theories). It’s part of Tokarczuk’s wder agenda: I haven’t changed my mind about this novel being partly a meditation on the human condition, and it can only work in that way if she makes her main character interesting enough. I’m not always sure she does, but maybe that’s just me.

Meanwhile, we meet new characters. Or, mainly, characters we didn’t know Mrs D knew but that she tells us about now. ‘Good News’s shop,’ for instance, isn’t one of a chain called Good News, but the shop where the narrator’s friend works. Everybody becomes Mrs Duszejko’s friend if they’re kind enough, and everything Good News does is friendly. There’s a poodle that Mrs D is convinced understands her perfectly, owned by an old man who isn’t the only one to treat her theory seriously. The other is a local dentist, as unconcerned by convention as she is, happy to believe her and tell his patients all about the revenge of the animals. Meanwhile…

…whilst Good News, the old man and the dentist are on the side of the angels, almost everybody else isn’t. The police, Oddball, Dizzy—I didn’t mention that his day-job is as the local police force’s IT specialist—all much prefer to put their faith in theories which, in fact, have no more to recommend them than Mrs D’s. They might be more rational-sounding—Big Foot’s was an unlucky accident, and the commandant’s was doubtless to do with the nefarious business he was doing, otherwise why was he carrying 25000 zlotys hidden under his shirt? As for the third death… this isn’t so easy. The victim is the local capitalist, who runs a fox farm among other enterprises, and when he goes missing at the end of winter, Dizzy is perfectly satisfied that he’s run off with his lover and is lying low somewhere. However… when his body is found in early summer, unrecognisable after months in the forest except for his favourite leather jacket, Dizzy is almost shocked. He (or Oddball, I forget) had tried not to be too hard on Mrs D when she told him of her theory. It’s bolstered in her mind, and therefore in the reader’s, by an ultra-realistic vision she has of how some foxes, pretending to be tame and amenable, lured him to his death in revenge for their lost brothers and sisters. Tokarczuk seems to be inviting us to weigh the rational-sounding theories about the deaths carry any more weight than the narrator’s. She seems to want to undermine them.

So is this mad-sounding narrator, in fact, right about almost everything? I ask because Tokarczuk, in amongst all the silliness about astrology, gives her heroine a lot of things to say that many readers would agree with. For whole paragraphs at a time it’s perfectly possible to believe that Mrs D is speaking the author’s words verbatim. Who wouldn’t be outraged by the needless death of a wild creature left to bleed in terrible pain? Who wouldn’t be disgusted by the hunting platforms given the ironic name—the narrator hates the ironic tone of most of the utterances she hears—of ‘pulpits,’ which give humans such an advantage they turn the forest’s wildlife into sitting targets? And when spring is on its way, Mrs D evokes the beauty of the forest, or the sun, or moon, or morning mists, like a true poet. The author seems to be at one with her narrator in her love of wild places.

Most of these middle chapters are concerned with the cycle of Mrs D’s daily life. We know that she used to have dogs, no doubt the ‘Girls’ she still imagines playing around the place, and that the local capitalist was somehow responsible for their disappearance or deaths. The deer she sometimes sees, the ones Big Foot hunted, are her Young Ladies…. For her, there is no moral difference between humans and other animals, and quotations by Blake at the head of each chapter seem to confirm her view. With this in mind, it’s only a small step from the collective human consciousness—Tokarczuk is known for her interest in Jungian theories—to the collective consciousness of every living creature. Mrs Duszejko takes things further than the author would, but… but it’s a novel, and if an author decides it, anything can happen.

Time to read on.

7 January
Chapters 12-17—to the end
I’m disappointed. For the first half of this novel I was intrigued by the ideas Tokarczuk was raising, about humanity’s relationship with the rest of Creation (as Blake might have called it), and about the individual in relation to society and the cosmos. By the end, it’s become what the author always knew it was, a straightforward murder mystery. There’s a motive, clues that were there all along if we’d been looking for them (I wasn’t, particularly), and the murderer’s own detailed description of the crimes. This could have been fine—crime novels often have as much to tell us as the conventional literary fiction being produced, or more—but the details of the crime are so dull I found them a let-down. Mrs D, for it is she, had (highly implausibly) found a photo in Big Foot’s house in Chapter 1 of the three hunters who had killed her beloved dogs. Outraged, she takes revenge on her Girls’ behalf. The end.

I’m disappointed because a great deal of the novel is full of engaging ideas. Early on, I referred to the narrator as an Everywoman—really I meant an Everyhuman—because her particular ways of dealing with the big issues seemed to have something to say about us all. Society’s systems clearly aren’t fit for purpose—the Patriarchy is alive and kicking in 21st Century Poland—so, to the best of her ability, she lives according to her own. Everybody in this novel has a system that works for them and, for me, this is at the centre of Tokarczuk’s project. Mrs D’s genuine-seeming belief in the value of the natural world, the one I’m convinced is Tokarczuk’s own, is in opposition to the rationalism of Dizzy and Oddball, society’s blatant lack of interest and, later, the wrong-headed (or frankly corrupt) morality of the Church. Its elevation of Hubert, a reformed hunter, to patron saint of hunting is the low point that drives Mrs D to yet abother murder.

It must be part of the project that we readers interrogate these systems for ourselves. As I’ve already suggested, it’s hard not to be in agreement with the narrator’s Green agenda. We are in complete sympathy with her love of nature, her genuinely poetic descriptions and her disgust at her native Poland’s treatment of animals. Moreover, she is endlessly curious about how the universe works, and about her own place in it. She has her own rather vaguely-defined problems, her ‘Ailments’ that seem to be a mixture of the physical and the psychosomatic, and she finds interactions with other people really tough… but she appears to be doing her best. As most of us do. But…

…by about the half-way point I was fretting that this novel might not be as interesting as it first seemed and, for me, that’s how it’s turned out. The details of Mrs D’s life, especially her astrological calculations, start to become a little repetitive and, of all the characters, she is the only one who is fully drawn. Then in the later chapters, when there’s an even more bizarre death than the others, the murder mystery element becomes a much more dominant thread. There’s still time for a diatribe against the way the Catholic church in Poland sanctions hunting whilst pretending that it’s a way to cherish diversity—Mrs D saying the words, I suspect, that Tokarczuk herself would be proud to speak—but, really, the interest has shifted. How on earth did the ‘president’ of the preposterous mushroom-pickers’ club die with his mouth full of living insects?

So, of the guesses I’d made about the possibilities, it’s actually Mrs D ‘hiding from the reader (or from herself) crimes that she has committed.’ During her final confession to her friends—all rationalists who had never been taken in by her so-called theory about the animals’ revenge, as it happens—she tries to suggest that she never really planned to kill anybody. The first murder was the commandant’s—Big Foot’s death really was an accident—but, she says, ‘I wanted to talk to him, to stand face-to-face, on my terms not his, like at the police station.’ However, once she’d stopped his car for the planned encounter on the road—‘Perhaps I wanted to give him a fright’—things quickly escalate. And she has a convenient murder-weapon, a deer’s head left over from Big Foot’s feast, frozen and encased in a carrier-bag of solid ice. ‘I don’t know if I took it with me with the intention of using it.’ No? Whatever, the other murders are planned in cold blood….

She had lured the fox-farmer to where she had prepared a snare, and finished him off with the same carrier-bag. (Conveniently, she had been a champion hammer-thrower in her youth—a fact I found myself snorting at in derision.) The president, a known philanderer and utterly sure of himself, is drunk following the club dance, and it’s easy for her to knock him out. She had filched a test-tube of insect pheromones from a friendly entomologist earlier in the summer (very friendly, in fact, and central to her escape to the Czech Republic later) and she pours it into the president’s mouth. Finally, she burns down the presbytery with the priest inside it. It had been the dedication service to St Hubert that had brought on the tirade she assures us she simply couldn’t control. She likes to talk about how situations escalate, how a kind of instinct or muscle-memory (in the case of the heavy carrier bag) or her Ailments kick into place—but, as we’ve seen, she’s become more and more calculating. Those mad-sounding interviews at the police station, and her even crazier-sounding letters later, are smokescreens, pure and simple.

For me, this isn’t a clever piece of narrative sleight-of-hand by Tokarczuk. This New Age-y, ditsy old woman, with her interest in Blake and the natural world—an interest we have seen to be completely genuine—is really a calculating former athlete who fools everybody she meets. This kind of volte-face is common in whodunits, but… but where does it leave that interrogation of belief-systems? Is all of that really no more than a smokescreen—Tokarsczuk’s, getting the reader to look the other way at the same time that Mrs D is doing the same to everybody she knows?

No. It would be overstating it to suggest that the novel’s serious agenda simply disappears when we discover that there’s a simple whodunit plot lurking at the centre of it. I didn’t like the idea of a major author resorting to such an obvious trope which, after the serious concerns raised in the novel, feels like a big let-down. My first reaction was that I’d taken it all too seriously from the start, but I don’t think that’s right. I think Tokarczuk herself gets it wrong, subsuming the metaphysical and moral questioning in it to the necessities of a rather silly plot.

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