This book came to my attention a year ago, when Polish author Olga Tokarczuk won the 2018 Nobel Prize for literature – which was awarded in 2019, simultaneously with that of Peter Handke. One of four books of Tokarczuk available in English, the translation of Antonia Lloyd-Jones was published in 2018.
I was instantly intrigued by its title – I guess I still am a teenage metalhead first and foremost, and it’s hard to think of another title that captures the awe and worldview expressed in extreme metal more than this partial quote of English Romantic poet William Blake. His Proverbs from Hell – from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell – start with these lines:
In seed time learn, in harvest teach, in winter enjoy. Drive your cart and your plow over the bones of the dead. The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.
I’ll tell you a bit more on the excess & the wisdom in the novel after the jump.
This also struck me as a cousin of The Door by Hungarian author Magda Szabó – an absolute masterpiece that also deals with an eccentric old female protagonist that’s something of a housekeeper, and similarly has a vibe that gently flirts with fairy tales & the mythic. The Door is one of my favorite books ever, so I had to check out this one too.
While Szabó’s book is superior, I had a great time reading Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead.
What makes Tokarczuk’s book a bit of a lesser affair is that it’s more obvious and transparent than The Door. Nonetheless, I get what the Nobel Prize committee meant when they awarded her the price for her “narrative imagination that with encyclopedic passion represents the crossing of boundaries as a form of life”. There clearly is transgression in this book, and, as such, the excess Blake speaks of.
For starters, Janina Duszejko, the protagonist, has a transgressive, excessive character, and her quirks and passions ring true. An important theme of the book is respect for Animals, and indeed, Tokarczuk is a vegetarian herself.
Drive Your Plow is described as a murder mystery, but do not start it thinking it to be a thriller or a detective. The who-did-it aspect of the story was almost instantly clear to me, and while that may be different for other readers, it’s not really relevant to the enjoyment of the book.
I guess the main wisdom of the book is the fact that marginalized voices can be morally right, and that society as a whole is morally hypocritical. As we seem to be collectively destroying our own habitat it makes Drive Your Plow a timely, even activist book – yet without resorting to preaching. Instead, Ms. Duszejko just gives facts, as she talks to herself throughout the book.
Other reviewers have stressed that two of the book’s characters translate Blake, but to me that seemed a sideshow only, and if you expect insights on the nature of translation or Romantic poetry, you’ll be disappointed. Not that Blake’s inclusion is superficial, not at all. It suits the book’s themes and characters, but functions more as an aesthetic addition, not something necessary for the plot or its philosophical blueprint – I might be wrong however, as I’m not a connoisseur of Blake.
Another of Ms. Duszejko’s quirks is astrology, and that’s front and center much more. Our surroundings determine us, and astrology is an apt metaphor for the knowledge that our lives, ultimately, aren’t free. Those readers who agree with that on a fundamental, philosophical level, and truly understand what that means, will recognize that such knowledge sets us – paradoxically – free, as guilt becomes a moot concept, and pride laughable. Janina knows all this too.
There’s great lines and observations sprinkled throughout the book, that is surprisingly funny, and not as dark or grim as the title suggests. The pacing is good, and Tokarczuk manages to surprise with small stuff throughout the book – another reason why the murder mystery isn’t the main impetus to read on.
Drive Your Plow feels both contemporary and timeless. The Door is set in the 1980ies, but Tokarczuk’s version of Emerence has a laptop. By the way, it can’t be a coincidence that one of the houses Janina tends to is the property of a female Writer too.
That Writer does something Janina describes with a line that floored me: writing “strips reality of its most essential quality – its inexpressibility.”
Just as Janina stresses we don’t know, can’t know our own bodies, we are blind to the full extent of the world’s suffering. “The psyche is our defense system – it makes sure we’ll never understand what’s going around us. (…) For it would be impossible to carry the weight of this knowledge.”
Needless to say, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead is recommended, and I will keep an eye out for House of Day, House of Night. Should you need more convincing, Sarah Perry’s in-depth review in The Guardian is excellent, but gives away a bit more too.