OLD ECCENTRICS. PATHETIC HIPPIES: Subversion and Ecology in Olga Tokarczuk’s ‘Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead’
Olga Tokarczuk, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2018)
By Marta Dziurosz
Olga Tokarczuk is a prophetess – a semi-serious suggestion to that effect was made during her author event in March 2018 at London’s British Library. Or is it just that she writes about ideas that keep resonating with her readers? In this case, the original Polish edition, entitled Prowadź swój pług przez kości umarłych, was published in 2009. By the time the book recently returned to general consciousness thanks to Agnieszka Holland’s Spoor – the film adaptation of Plow – and news of Antonia Lloyd-Jones’s English translation (out now from Fitzcarraldo), the situation in Poland reflected its themes almost eerily. Jan Szyszko, forester and the then Minister of Environment, was making decisions which seemed to directly contradict his role. The primeval Białowieża Forest was being ravaged; protesters chained themselves to trees and set up camp in the Forest to defend it; the European Commission got involved.
In this climate, it felt like Plow was something the Zeitgeist needed. Speaking most broadly, this is a book about the relationship between humans and nature. The structure is that of a crime novel of the „horrible things happening in a small town” variety; or at least, there are murders, there is an investigation. But the plot, interesting as it is, is really only an excuse for an exploration of the main theme: the animality of man and the humanity of animals. On the surface the book seems more straightforward than the Man Booker International-winning “constellation novel” Flights (translated by Jennifer Croft and reviewed previously on these pages here), yet the philosophical crime novel is only one aspect of Tokarczuk’s many guises.
The above-mentioned small town – or rather village – is situated in the remote Kłodzko Valley in the Polish Sudetes mountain range (an area which is also home to Tokarczuk herself). There are forests, mountain passes, inaccessible roads; where one can go depends on the weather and the season. Nature can kill, and if nothing else, one must be aware of it at all times, as one’s life is inextricably linked to it. Some people enjoy this close relationship peacefully, or walk around the woods to learn more about their flora and fauna; others poach or hunt. It is those ones, the ones behaving aggressively and unlawfully towards nature, who start dying in mysterious circumstances. The fresh snow surrounding the dead bodies shows marks suspiciously similar to animal tracks.
The main character, first-person narrator, and very strong draw of the book is Janina Duszejko: ageing English teacher, local busybody and eccentric (or a crazy old biddy, depending who you ask) preoccupied with astrology and animals, former engineer struggling with her ‘Ailments’. Lloyd-Jones gives Duszejko a dignified yet earthy voice. If one of the good things about growing old is becoming acquainted with the ups and downs of life, it is clear Duszejko has seen it all, and nothing that’s human is alien to her. Her narration reflects this beautifully, equally confident when she makes a dry joke, expresses quiet delight with the landscapes surrounding her or explodes with anger at the harm done to animals. It feels a pathetic state of affairs to be so excited about a nuanced, realistic and spirited depiction of an elderly woman, one who is perfectly aware of her standing within society, ready to subvert it and familiar with her own anger; but that is because there are so few of them, and as a character she truly stands alone.
Tokarczuk performs the admirable feat of showing how a perspective that seems completely consistent from within can tip over into the erratic when seen from the outside. Duszejko, very much an unreliable narrator, sees meaning in the movements and placement of stars and planets; the precise time of one’s birth has the utmost significance; she gives everyone meaningful, personal names; there are rituals and bones that have to be buried. Is it sensitivity and compassion? Can it be detachment from reality? Duszejko’s relationship with nature and animals is of a singular intensity. While it is difficult to disagree with her when she says:
Its animals show the truth about a country. […] If people behave brutally towards Animals, no form of democracy is ever going to help them.
Another question raised by the book is: how aggressively can we act against aggression? Tokarczuk has mentioned that Surrealist painter and novelist Leonora Carrington served as an inspiration for Duszejko and there is certainly something witchy about her (although we also get glimpses of steely pragmatism and evidence of thorough knowledge of the law). Philip Pullman writes in an article about Spellbound: Magic, Ritual & Witchcraft, an exhibition currently on at Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum: „they [witches] and those who believed in witchcraft and magic existed in a shared mental framework of hidden influences and meanings, of significances and correspondences.” If we take this definition of a witch as valid, then Duszejko definitely is one, and although her meanings and the patterns she finds in the world might be unfamiliar to most of us, there is a beautiful internal harmony to them. The horoscopes she calculates resemble maps, the leitmotif in Flights: guiding structures which we can elect to ignore, but which will still provide a bird’s-eye view of our paths.
As in the Polish original, so it is here: the spectre of Blake hovers over the book. Duszejko has a young friend Dionizy, whom she calls Dizzy (one of the many instances where Lloyd-Jones offers an ingenious, lively translation of a proper name which is meaningful in the original). She helps him translate Blake’s works – The Book of Urizen, Proverbs of Hell, Songs of Innocence – freely uses terms from Blake’s mythos (“[d]own here, in the world of Urizen”) and her speech is dotted with nouns elevated by capitalisation. Her concept of people whose genuine, innocent natures makes them seem like they came from a time before the Blakean Fall is particularly appealing. Janina and Dizzy’s work on Blake’s texts offers an opportunity for some reflections on translation itself (“a complicated form of Scrabble”), with one statement any reader of books from all around the world will recognise:
How wonderful – to translate from one language to another, and by doing so to bring people closer to one another – what a beautiful idea.
Plow is the third book of Tokarczuk’s published in the UK in Antonia Lloyd-Jones’s translation – the previous two were House of Day, House of Night (Granta, 2002) and Primeval and Other Times (Twisted Spoon Press, 2010). As a translator, Lloyd-Jones now “shares” Tokarczuk with Flights’ Jennifer Croft, who is working on the monumental historical novel The Books of Jacob, forthcoming from Fitzcarraldo. After a long time spent working on getting Tokarczuk’s books published in English, and years of personal friendship, the author and the translator’s closeness seems to shine through in the entirely consistent voice of this beautiful translation. The switches of tone between the gentle, slightly surrealist sense of humour of the village life, Duszejko’s philosophical ruminations and elements of a crime procedural would have been tricky to a less assured translator, but Lloyd-Jones weaves her words with ease. Although there is something archaic about Duszejko’s diction, it doesn’t feel stiff or artificial at all, and the sensitive, flexible language is a pleasure to read.
A familiar Tokarczuk theme of porous borders – explored so deeply and wonderfully in Flights – appears also in Plow. Duszejko’s village is so close to the Czech Republic that “[t]he [phone] signal wanders, with no regard for the national borders” and the Czech operator sometimes takes over – it is also possible to cross a border and never notice having done it, or indeed do it deliberately for fun (“It gave me pleasure, because I could remember the time when it wasn’t possible.”)
In Duszejko’s telling, there also isn’t that much of a division between humans and animals: in a few cases, especially when she uses one of the many nicknames she gives other beings, the confusion can be absolute. The thin line between a person and a “lump of matter” can be crossed all too easily as well. This flux is all-encompassing, and accepted with what can only be wisdom:
It is at Dusk that the most interesting things occur, for that is when simple differences fade away. I could live in everlasting Dusk.
Plow is also very much a feminist book (any feminist would do well to read the book, if only to familiarise themselves with Janina Duszejko’s definition of “testosterone autism”). There are, of course, many feminisms; Duszejko’s particular one rails against the structures of Polish patriarchy – the bigoted Church, the corrupt police, the petty local politicians, the hunters who absolutely believe in their right to take as many lives as they please, and against the economics of usefulness: “Who divided the world into useless and useful, and by what right? Does a thistle have no right to life, or a Mouse that eats the grain in a warehouse?”.
Another thing she deplores is disengagement: “It’s a very cowardly attitude to mock or belittle everything, never be committed to anything, not feel tied to anything. […] Cold irony is Urizen’s basic weapon.” In the face of ridicule and constant attacks on her values, Duszejko refuses to back down and takes matters into her own hands, in more ways than one. In certain circumstances vegetarianism, defending forests and making your decisions on the basis of what the stars tell you – and believing that to be wisdom – can be gestures of rebellion and resistance, and in the little Polish village they certainly are. Part of the climax of the book is an extraordinary scene in a church, during a mass for hunters on Saint Hubert’s day; layers and layers of age-old institutional power and Duszejko’s lone voice against them, protesting against the smug status quo. As she says earlier in the book:
Anger puts things in order and shows you the world in a nutshell; Anger restores the gift of Clarity of Vision.
Related to the interplay of feminism and patriarchy is the more general theme of hierarchies of power and agency, and how arbitrary they are; why is it that the murder of an animal should mean less than the murder of a person? How, and why, do we end up considering one type of knowledge superior to others? Why should the voice of an elderly woman carry less weight than the voice of a middle-aged man? Society conditions us to expect power to be used in a certain way and to come from certain sources; but perhaps there is more to power than meets the eye. There are two particularly frustrating scenes at the police station, where Duszejko passionately and eloquently urges the functionaries to look into recent cases of poaching, hunting and animal cruelty. The negligence and wilful lack of understanding she encounters signals a complete mismatch between her priorities and those of the people who should supposedly prevent evil from happening.
I want to use the word “dense” to describe Plow, but it’s not hard going at all – it’s just that there is so much food for thought in Duszejko’s inner monologues and her interactions with others, in the unique way she looks at the world. There is a wonderful, fertile depth about the book, but it is worn lightly. While a completely different form than Flights, it is no less layered, ingenious or beautiful. The thoughts that stay with me after reading Plow are to do with connections and consequences: the interconnectedness of everything is a recurrent outlook in Tokarczuk’s writing. Her circle of empathy seems infinitely wide and her perspective shifts easily between the tiny lives of beetles and the passing of geological eras. Plow acknowledges there are many orders of thought, many sets of hierarchies we can subscribe to; but because we all live under the same firmament and walk on the same soil, we must remember that even those that seem alien can still affect us.