Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk (tr. Antonia Lloyd Jones)

Drive Your Plow… , the 2009 novel by Nobel Prize winner Olga Tokarczuk, is quite a difficult one to describe. It is by turns an existential murder mystery, a meditation on life in an isolated, rural community and, perhaps most importantly, an examination of our relationship with animals and their place in the hierarchy of society. That might make Plow sound heavy or somewhat ponderous; however, nothing could be further from the truth. This is a wonderfully accessible book, a metaphysical novel that explores some fascinating and important themes in a highly engaging way. I loved it.

Central to the narrative is Janina, a highly intelligent, idiosyncratic woman in her sixties who lives in a remote Polish village near the border with the Czech Republic. Janina – who narrates the novel – is a marvellous creation, the sort of woman who sees the world in a very particular way, standing up for what she believes in without being willing to compromise her intrinsic values. She invents names for everyone around her, eschewing the lacklustre nature of formal names in favour of more appropriate epithets that capture something fundamental about a person – typically a particular aspect of their appearance or personality. Consequently, we have characters named ‘Big Foot’, ‘Good News’ and ‘Black Coat’, to name but a few.

I believe each of us see the other Person in our own way, so we should give them the name we consider suitable and fitting. Thus we are polyonymous. We have as many names of the number of people with whom we interact. My name for Świerszczyński is Oddball, and I think it reflects his Attributes well. (p. 30)

In winter, there are only two other residents besides Janina who remain in this remote, snowbound area – Janina’s neighbour, Oddball, and one of the local hunters, Big Foot, whom Janina despises, the source of her hatred for this man ultimately revealing itself as the story unfolds.

One night, having noticed something strange about Big Foot’s house, Oddball discovers the hunter lying dead on the kitchen floor, so he calls on Janina for help. Even though Janina knows it is wrong to disturb a body before the police appear on the scene, Oddball insists on making it look more respectable, and it is during this process that the presence of a clue emerges. There is a bone lodged in Big Foot’s mouth, ‘long and thin and sharp as a dagger’.

At first, it appears as though Big Foot simply choked on the bone while eating his dinner; however, as Janina examines the contents of Big Foot’s kitchen, another theory begins to seed itself in her mind. On the windowsill she spots a deer’s head and four trotters, presumably the spoils of a kill that Big Foot had carried out before his death. Moreover, other deer are visible in the vicinity that night – Janina and Oddball see them clustered together outside Big Foot’s house on their approach.

What if the herd have taken revenge for the slaughter of their sister? Are animals seeking vengeance on the hunters of the district, striking back against the perpetrators of these inhuman acts? ‘Animals have a very strong sense of justice,’ Janina muses at one point – while humans merely have a view of the world, animals have an innate sense of it.

As other deaths swiftly follow, Janina becomes increasingly convinced that her theory holds water, particularly when deer prints are found near the body of the second victim – another hunter, the Commandant – who is found dead in a shallow well.

One of the many things that Tokarczuk highlights in this endlessly fascinating novel is the invisibility or dismissal of women, especially when they reach middle age. Janina writes impassioned letters to the local police, outlining her theories on the ‘murders’, which she backs up with supporting evidence, such as the deer prints and the alignment of the celestial planets. Astrology is a major area of interest for Janina, and her belief in its influence over our lives is fervent and unwavering.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given society’s attitudes to ladies of a certain age, the police swiftly dismiss Janina as a nut job, a ‘crazy old crone’ with nothing better to do with herself. Would a young man or an attractive woman be treated differently, Janina wonders? Almost certainly, yes.

Once we have reached a certain age, it’s hard to be reconciled to the fact that people are always going to be impatient with us. In the past, I was never aware of the existence and meaning of gestures such as rapidly giving assent, avoiding eye contact, and repeating ‘yes, yes, yes’ like clockwork. Or checking the time, or rubbing one’s nose – these days I fully understand this entire performance for expressing the simple phrase: ‘Give me a break, you old bag’. I have often wondered whether a strapping, handsome young man would be treated like that if he were to say the same things as I do? Or a buxom brunette? (pp. 38-39)

Central to the novel are issues of animal rights. Does man have a greater right to life than an animal? Where do animals sit in the hierarchy of society? Who sets these ‘rules’ and parameters, and are they correct? Who deems whether someone is useless or unimportant, and by what criteria?

Naturally, Janina is a fierce defender of animal rights – the belief that animals are just as important as her fellow humans, if not more so, is fundamental to her actions. As far as Janina is concerned, the way a society treats its animals speaks volumes about its values, potentially undermining any notions of justice or democracy.

‘You have more compassion for animals than for people.’

‘That’s not true. I feel just as sorry for both. But nobody shoots at defenceless people,’ I told the City Guard that same evening. […]

‘Its Animals show the truth about a country,’ I said. ‘Its attitude towards Animals. If people behave brutally towards Animals, no form of democracy is ever going to help them, in fact nothing will at all.’ (p. 109)

As the novel draws to a close, there is a form of resolution to the mysterious deaths which feels satisfying and appropriate, especially given the novel’s inherent themes. Nevertheless, that’s far from being the most interesting thing on offer here. Alongside the moral and ethical issues of animal rights, Tokarczuk casts her eye over a myriad of fascinating subjects from the poetry of William Blake to the challenges of ageing to the frailties of the human body – ‘fancy being given a body and not knowing anything about it. There’s no instruction manual.’

She also manages to fit in some time for a brief digression on one of the major failings of men, how several of them succumb to ‘testosterone autism’ as they age and regress. (For the interested, the major symptoms of this condition include: ‘a gradual decline in social intelligence and capacity for interpersonal communication’, the development of an interest in various tools, machinery, WW2 and ‘the biographies of famous people, mainly politicians and villains’. In parallel, the capacity to read novels almost entirely disappears.)

In summary then, Drive Your Plow… is a wonderful metaphysical noir, one that subverts the traditional expectations of the genre to create something truly thought-provoking and engaging. It’s also beautifully written, by turns arresting, poetic, mournful, and blacky comic. I’ll finish with a final quote, one that captures something of the novel’s luminous quality and mood.

Outside, in the pool of light falling from the porch lamp, the snow was changing into a slow, sleepy shower. Oddball stood next to me in silence, tall, thin and bony like a figure sketched in a few pencil strokes. Every time he moved, snow fell from him like icing sugar from pastry ribbons. (p. 14)

Drive Your Plow… is published by Fitzcarraldo Editions; personal copy.

44 thoughts on “Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk (tr. Antonia Lloyd Jones)

  1. popsie18

    A superb review of this novel. It was one of the most remarkable novels I read last year and thoroughly enjoyed Janina’s observations.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Janet. I can’t recommend it highly enough. It’s full of wonderful observations on life, the universe and our society. One of my favourite reads of the year so far.

      Reply
  2. gertloveday

    I saw the film of this book, Spoor, in 2017. The book had not been translated into English at that stage. It. Is good to read your review and to see that the film did justice to the book. It is a remarkable story.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ooh, I wasn’t aware that it had been filmed. How intriguing! I’ll be heading off to do a bit research on that in a few minutes…

      Reply
  3. jenniferbeworr

    It was wonderful to enjoy this review and be reminded of details from the novel. I read it for a book club, then shared it with my mother, I will do with my daughter, too!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ah, how lovely! Funnily enough, I have been thinking that it might make an interesting choice for my book group as it’s good to mix things up a bit now and again. We have a rotating pick, so I will definitely keep it in mind when my turn comes around again. There’s quite a lot of interesting stuff to discuss in here, as I’m sure you found in your own club!

      Reply
  4. Janakay | YouMightAsWellRead

    I’ve been dying to read this book since it was translated into English. Although I realize that the view towards animals rights is positive, I’m just afraid that the descriptions of how animals are treated will be too horrifc for me, so I’ve avoided it. It really does sound like an incredible work of fiction, however.
    Great review BTW.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks! I can understand your reservations on that front, but if it helps, I don’t think there’s anything too gruesome in here about the hunting of animals. Hunters are mentioned, yes – but we never actually see or hear of any hunts involving animals. All the violence — such that there is — is off camera and meted out against humans, not animals. So, I think you could safely read it without too much concern. (PS I’m pretty sure that Heaven Ali and Karen have read it and enjoyed it, and they’re both vegans as far as I’m aware.)

      Reply
      1. Janakay | YouMightAsWellRead

        I greatly appreciate your additional details on this aspect of a novel I very much want to read. Tokarczuk seems like such an interesting and rewarding writer and she’s been on my “radar” for quite some time. On the other hand, I’ve learned the hard way that there are just some things I can’t read about. It sounds like Plow may be o.k. for me . . . .

        Reply
  5. Rohan Maitzen

    I really enjoyed this review! I loved this book too – we read it with my book club and we were all really engaged with it. It is such a tricky thing, to write a novel that is truly and deeply a “novel of ideas” but also gripping to read from beginning to end; your comments really capture this quality of it!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks so much, Rohan! You’re right, it *is* a novel of ideas. That’s a great way of thinking about it – and the author alights on these various themes with the lightest of touches. It’s quite a skill, I think, to be able to explore some of these big, philosophical themes without the novel feeling too heavy or intellectual.

      Reply
  6. heavenali

    Great review so glad you loved it. I loved all those themes thst weave together so brilliantly, that invisibility of women of a certain age was particularly well done. Such an unusual, readable novel.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Ali. It’s a fascinating book, isn’t it? So many different themes explored with the lightest of touches. I had been a bit worried beforehand that it might be a bit weighty, but it wasn’t like that at all. A most enjoyable novel with a wonderful tone of voice!

      Reply
  7. villabijou

    A wonderful book, beautifully written. I am hoping there are others by her to be translated. I have read Flights and enjoyed that too.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, me too. I’d love to see more of her work being made available in translation. Flights is on my list for sure, but I’ll probably take a look at the text first, just to see how I get on with the style,. It sounds quite different from Plow in certain respects.

      Reply
  8. Julé Cunningham

    You’ve picked out some of my favorite parts of this book; the way Janina views the world, her clarity on how older women are seen or not seen really, her love of William Blake, her deep love and care of animals and people she feels a connection to, how she lives her life the way she wants to, and when coming across certain news stories, I laugh at how perfectly on point Tokarczuk was in that entire description of ‘testosterone autism’.

    Thank you for writing such a lovely piece on a book that put Olga Tokarczuk on my shortlist of ‘authors that I’ll read absolutely anything they write’.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, that’s such a lovely comment, Julé. Thank you! I’m so glad my post reminded you of a few of your favourite elements from the book.

      Janina has such an interesting view of the world, doesn’t she? The things she priorities are very revealing in terms of her fundamental values and outlook on life, so different from the views of many other groups in society. I couldn’t help but laugh at that section on testosterone autism as I’ve seen examples of it in the bookshop – Tokarczuk is absolutely spot on in her description of the key characteristics!

      Reply
  9. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Excellent review, Jacqui, and I so agree with all your astute observations. This is such a multi-layered work, yet I found it incredibly readable, and Janina is a wonderful character. Tokarczuk tackles so many issues, yet I never found her heavy-handed, and of course empathised closely with her on the animals. And as an older woman myself, I found her exploration of society’s dismissal of us as daft old bags to be very pertinent. I loved “Flights” very much, but your review reminds me how highly I thought of this one – I think, with a little distance between the reading of both now, that I might prefer “Drive your Plow…”!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Karen! That means a lot coming from you as I know how much you admire this author’s work. Multi-layered is a great way of describing it. There’s so much going on here; and yet, it’s remarkably accessible and enjoyable to read, not too weighty or hectoring at all. I think that’s a reflection of the author’s skill in creating such a distinctive, intelligent and thoroughly engaging character in Janina…

      I would like to try Flights at some point (it’s on a wishlist), although I am a little worried that it might feel too different from Plow in terms of tone. Nevertheless, Tokarczuk is clearly a very talented writer, so it’s got to be worth a shot!

      Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          I shall let you know. Probably won’t be for a while though as I tend to spread books out a bit, especially when they’re by the same author. :)

          Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, great. That’s reassuring to hear in terms of your response to Flights. I will get around to it…eventually. In the meantime, I think you would love this one. It’s just the right kind of ‘dark’ – quite Fargo-ish in style, as someone mentioned in response to this piece!

      Reply
  10. lauratfrey

    One of my favourite books of all time. “the invisibility or dismissal of women, especially when they reach middle age” yes! This is my favourite sub-genre, I think. And to echo others, Flights is also fantastic. Will you be taking on her upcoming (in translation) 1,100 pager??

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Cool, I’m glad you agree! Not sure about the forthcoming behemoth, but I definitely want to try Flights. Thanks for adding to the chorus of endorsement, that’s very good to know!

      Reply
  11. clodge2013

    I really enjoyed this book. It was thought-provoking, quirk, funny and satisfying. I also loved Flights. But it’s hard to think of these two being by the same writer.
    Caroline

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I was chatting to a friend about it this morning, and quirky / left-field came up in the conversation. It’s good to hear you loved Flights, too – very reassuring. I have to say I’m intrigued!

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, thanks, Grier – that’s very kind of you to say. I’m really glad you enjoyed my piece on this one. I’ll be fascinated to hear how you get on with Flights. It does sound very intriguing, albeit in a different sense to Plow!

      Reply
  12. buriedinprint

    That last quotation is scrumptious. This is one that I have in epub but I have a sense that I would enjoy it more on paper. (Normally I assume that’s true for older publications, classics, etc., but not necessarily such a clear link when it comes to contemporary stories, but in this case, it seems right? Although I read VERY rarely on a screen because I have to budget my screen time to begin with anyway.) Someone I’m sure that I’ll love this one. And not only because so many people seem to have warmed to it…

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Isn’t it just? Really beautiful. Funnily enough, I also own this on kindle (one of those 99p daily deals that I hate myself for succumbing to), but I’m so glad that I chose to invest in a physical copy instead. It tends to devalue the book somewhat for me if I read it in digital format, making it feel like a beach read or something equally disposable (partly because I tend to associate my kindle with travelling and book group reads). Anyway, it’s a tremendous book, and I do think you’d like it. There’s a degree of eccentricity to it, a kind of left-field vibe that I suspect you would enjoy.

      Reply
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