Review by Jay G. Ying
In 1521 the public defender Bartholomew Chassenée successfully acquitted his clients – a family of rats – after they were summoned to court over the destruction of crops in a French province. The rodents naturally failed to appear at the town’s hearing, however Chassenée argued that because the safety of his clients could not be guaranteed then the case had to be deferred indefinitely: the rats were free to live. This surreal tale is briefly mentioned, amongst others, in a passionate letter sent by the narrator of Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead (Fitzcarraldo, 2018), translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, after a series of unexplained murders are attributed to the local avenging wildlife. The narrator explains that the phenomenon of animal trials were well-documented throughout Europe’s history, that man’s capacity to scapegoat has always extended to all living things; yet, if animals wished to enact revenge upon all those who have subjugated them, retribution against the ‘soulless and cruel conduct’ of the human species, Tokarczuk’s novel asks: can we blame them?
Drive Your Plow is written as an entirely different beast in terms of its structure compared to her acclaimed constellation novel Flights (Fitzcarraldo, 2018). More conscious of its own condensed structure and direction, Drive Your Plow is a thought-provoking philosophical crime novel. All the key elements of the genre play out traditionally but Tokarczuk is less interested in whodunnit than in asking the speculative questions as to whether we should care? The intellectual curiosity and wit that characterises Tokarczuk’s prose shines through in Drive Your Plow’s concentrated laboratory of visions, dreams and hopes. Tokarczuk’s novel is all at once suspenseful and naturalistic, often tender in its depictions of ageing and exile, with surprising splashes of gallows humour. Antonia Lloyd-Jones, an award-winning translator of a number of Tokarczuk’s novels, lifts the composed, earthen voice of the narrator out of the page with momentum. The deft translation keeps the unique strangeness and melancholy in the narrator’s diction and syntax, giving the novel a timeless yet distinctly antique quality.
I never know when an Attack will occur, or when I will feel worse. Sometimes it’s as if I’m composed of nothing but symptoms of illness, I am a phantom built out of pain.
The book’s central force is Janina Duszejko: retired bridge engineer, English teacher, now caretaker and devout astrologer. She is the novel’s eccentric sleuth who lives alone as an elderly outcast in the remote Kłodzko Valley cirque near the border between Poland and the Czech Republic, where hunting pulpits stand tall like angels surrounding the farms. Janina is a contemporary embodiment of Saint Francis: a patron of the local fauna who is afflicted by mysterious ‘Ailments’, burdened with a wonderful capacity for empathy of all things natural and living. Janina is the link between the human and the animal realm, and when a group of hunters are murdered one-by-one in her village, she becomes the warning prophet against those who dare to erode the balance of nature she hopes to preserve. Her shrewd, righteous narration rings out through the gothic landscape as a call of authentic hope for all who, like her, are not taken seriously by men in power—she is the heroine the reader must root for. Her anger is palpable, her philosophies persuasive.
We believe we are free, and that God will forgive us. Personally I think otherwise. Finally, transformed into tiny quivering photons, each of our deeds will set off into Outer Space, where the planets will keep watching it like a film until the end of the world.
Drive Your Plow has some similarities to Cosmos by Witold Gombrowicz, an older Polish metaphysical novel also centred on the murder of an animal; in both there is the sense that every narrative detail is connected underneath an overarching structure. Janina narrates the surreal events of the novel from within her astrological knowledge of constellations and horoscopes: supernatural forces and occult rituals are never far out of her mind. The ‘planetary configuration on [her] table’ becomes a microcosm for the village, then for the universe, whilst floodlights shining through a thick rain become ‘long silver threads, like angel hair on a Christmas tree’. Even the smallest narrative moments are imbued with philosophical and symbolic power. Drive Your Plow is a novel of connections as well as instability, where names and nouns threaten to transform and revolt; the animals are described as if they might metamorphose into humans, whilst Janina often reduces humans into unearthly beings. Tokarczuk’s writing easily moves between these borders of prophecy, rhetoric, Jungian psychology, and poetry. The sentient animals that populate the chapters—the ritualistic death of a boar, a herd of ominous deer, animal tracks surrounding a dead body, the gruesome image of insects crawling out of the orifices of a man—these violent depictions abound in pages of rich and lingering prose.
The novel heavily gestures to the life and writings of William Blake: every chapter begins with an epigraph from Blake; the title of the novel itself is a line from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell; and Tokarczuk generously employs capitalising throughout the prose to compelling effect. We are just as much in one of Blake’s visions and personal mythologies as we are in a contemporary Polish village: the final reveal of the novel, which may pleasantly catch out unsuspecting readers, gains particular relevance when compared against Blake’s life. Some of the most rewarding passages of the prose include the to-and-fro conversations between Janina and her friend, Dizzy, as they navigate translating various lines of Blake into Polish, an interesting linguistic exercise to then read through Lloyd-Jones’s English translation.
Must I be a witness to every Crime? … Sorrow, I felt great sorrow, an endless sense of mourning for every dead Animal. One period of grief is followed by another, so I am in constant mourning. This is my natural state.
The questions surrounding animal sovereignty form the transcendental preoccupation of Drive Your Plow. Janina, a vegetarian, refuses the existence of the male hunters in her village. Their deaths signal a blurring between what is morally acceptable and what is not. She has no doubts about the vengeance of animals, yet, Tokarczuk repeatedly asks Janina, and the reader, to what extent can one live sanely in a world that holds so much injustice? The issue of cognitive dissonance interests Janina, though she feels no great urge to resolve the resulting consequences: her duty and ideology remains with the wildlife. Janina, upon seeing a healthy pregnant girl sitting on a bench unaware of all the hierarchies around her, asks, ‘how could one possibly know all this and not miscarry?’
Just like Mr Trigg in Daphne du Maurier’s The Birds, who takes a certain pride in shooting at the ill-omened sea birds silently amassing throughout the country, so do the dead men and hunters of Drive Your Plow fall into their archetypal place of fools: ignorant, spiritually impotent, but endlessly replaceable. The chain of command, as Tokarczuk depicts it, follows the chain of nature; the desperate elimination of authority figures will always lead to another head. The deaths of the hunters are satisfying but clearly they are not enough, and as we move through the novel, so the reader feels that Janina is fighting just one lonely battle in an impossible war. Drive Your Plow is a rally against oppressive structures and systems: the disruptive origins of Janina’s astrological thinking are pitted against the destructive energies of the Church, State, and Man. Through the intersecting hierarchies of patriarchy, religion, and ecocide, Tokarczuk create a damning portrait of humanity. In a particularly climactic and provocative chapter, Father Rustle delivers a vitriolic sermon in honour of Saint Hubert, patron of hunters, but he is interrupted by Janina’s resolute interior dialogue turned a defiant and outward condemnation. This moment is pivotal and highlights the book as one that celebrates modern resistance and rebellion; it is no surprise to learn that Father Rustle’s words were a compilation of genuine speeches of hunt chaplains Tokarczuk sourced from the internet.
Sometimes I feel as if we’re living inside a tomb, a large, spacious one for lots of people. I looked at the world wreathed in grey Murk, cold and nasty. The prison is not outside, but inside each of us. Perhaps we simply don’t know how to live without it.
The English translation of Drive Your Plow could not have come out in a more pertinent moment in our complex, and often contradictory, understanding of the anthropocene. Tokarczuk responds to our irreversible times with serious conviction in depicting the human relationship to the natural world. Whilst animal attacks have always been a popular trope, especially in genre fiction, Drive Your Plow pivots around the cheap thrill of the animalistic in order to explore deeper ethical dilemmas, finding a subversive place beyond Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles or Patricia Highsmith’s The Animal-Lover’s Book of Beastly Murder. The novel belongs more to the increasingly global – and translated – body of work, including Mia Couto’s Confession of the Lioness, dedicated to climate change, eco-poetics, and prioritising non-human narratives.
Drive Your Plow can be seen as a radical text but it is a beautifully important call-to-arms for recognising the transformative power of empathy and compassion. It was uncannily prescient that Fitzcarraldo published Drive Your Plow only a few months after the European Union denounced Poland for the large-scale logging of its protected Białowieża Forest, one of the world’s last primeval forests; in a scenario which could have come straight out of Drive Your Plow, the Polish government argued that their logging was essential in order to protect the forest from an infestation of bark beetles. One can easily imagine Janina as one of those three hundred eco-activists arrested during the anti-logging protests. Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead is both an oracle and political treatise for our times, a triumphantly contained and slick novel that showcases the author’s ability to entertain and reflect; with her magnum opus, The Book of Jacob (translated by Jennifer Croft), due for publication in 2020, it is easy to see why Olga Tokarczuk is hailed as one of the most compelling and imaginative voices in contemporary literature.
Jay G Ying’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in The White Review, PBS Bulletin, Ambit, amberflora and The Willowherb Review. He was the winner of the 2017 Poetry Book Society Student Poetry Prize and shortlisted for The White Review Poet’s Prize in 2018. He is currently a postgraduate student in Edinburgh, Scotland.