Author(s): Olga Tokarczuk
Novel | 2019 Man Booker International Prize long list | 2019 Man Booker International Prize short list | 2019 Warwick Prize for Women in Translation shortlist
Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead takes place in a remote Polish village, where Duszejko, an eccentric woman in her sixties, recounts the events surrounding the disappearance of her two dogs. When members of a local hunting club are found murdered, she becomes involved in the investigation. Duszejko is reclusive, preferring the company of animals to people; she's unconventional, believing in the stars, and she is fond of the poetry of William Blake, from whose work the title of the book is taken. Filled with wonderful characters like Oddball, Big Foot, Black Coat, Dizzy and Boros, this subversive, entertaining noir novel, by 'one of Europe's major humanist writers' (Guardian), offers thought-provoking ideas on our perceptions of madness, injustice against marginalised people, animal rights, the hypocrisy of traditional religion, belief in predestination--and getting away with murder. Shortlisted Man Booker International 2019
Janina ("don’t like my first name, so please don’t address me by it") Duszejko is in her sixties and lives in a remote Polish village. An ex-engineer, she teaches children English at the local school on a very part-time basis and is the caretaker of the holiday homes closed up for the winter. It’s mid-winter and Duszejko is busy with her horoscopes, translating William Blake with her friend Dizzy, clearing snow, fixing leaks, and keeping an eye on the forest animals. She has names for her neighbours, names which reflect their character: Big Foot for the weasel of a man with big feet who traps animals cruelly, Oddball for her large-statured yet very particular closest neighbour, Black Coat for his son - the local detective, Good News for the woman who runs the charity shop, and so on. She has a close affinity with nature and with the animals that live around her - she calls the deer the Young Ladies, and her dogs (who have recently disappeared) are referred to as her Little Girls. Drawing on Blake’s philosophy of nature, voicing her beliefs in the ideal equitable relationship between human and animal (a philosophy that many of her hunting neighbours have no time for), and using astrology - the alignments and ascendencies of planets and stars and birth dates to predict outcomes for her community, Duszejko has firm opinions, which she has no qualms about sharing, on how people should behave, on traditional Polish culture, and on the importance of nature to the health (intellectual and emotional) of human psyche. Overlay this with a series of murders and you have a very compelling novel. Mrs Duszejko starts investigating, drawing together facts and suppositions based upon birth dates and star signs. The first to tumble is Big Foot, choking on a deer bone. As more hunters fall, Duszejko is convinced that this is the revenge of the animals, that they have risen up against the human hunters who pursue them mercilessly. As the net tightens, the villagers become increasingly paranoid, and rumours of corruption and bribery are rife. This is a blackly comic novel which investigates pressing ideas about the nature of traditions, cultural stereotypes and the role of the outsider, the hypocrisy of the church and other institutions of authority, and the impact of development on ecological structures. As Duszejko gets closer to the truth, her Ailments (never fully explained) become increasingly severe and her accusations extreme. Ostracised by her community she is considered a 'mad' woman. Yet it is her insistence that will lead to a revelation that will shock everyone, including her few loyal friends. Throughout the novel there are references to Blake’s writings: each chapter starts with a quoted verse, and the title of the book comes directly from the ‘Proverbs of Hell’. Olga Tokarczuk’s second book to appear in translation is an intriguing and feisty exploration of fate and free will, of cultural politics and personal endeavours, of injustice and ultimate revenge. Her first novel to be translated into English, Flights, won the Man Booker International Prize earlier this year. With more works planned for translation, Tokarczuk is an author to discover, enjoy and be challenged by.