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Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead

Review

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead

written by Olga Tokarczuk, translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones

Olga Tokarczuk, a Polish writer whose brilliant, dense novel FLIGHTS won the Man Booker International Prize last year, published DRIVE YOUR PLOW OVER THE BONES OF THE DEAD more than a decade ago in her native Polish. Now this unconventional murder mystery --- which many readers will find a more accessible work than FLIGHTS --- is newly available in English, translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones. And guess what? It, too, was shortlisted for the Booker International Prize earlier this year.

The book’s central character (and first-person narrator) is an elderly woman named Janina Duszejko (who despises her own first name for reasons that are never entirely clear) who lives on an isolated plateau in Poland, so close to the Czech Republic that the border between the countries is constantly visible, and so remote that the border is porous in the extreme. There she has occupied herself with many pursuits, most recently serving as off-season caretaker for the several summer homes that dot the plateau. She’s also an educator, translator and amateur (but very serious) astrologist, convinced that she can divine from someone’s birth date not only key aspects of their personality but also the date of their death.

"DRIVE YOUR PLOW OVER THE BONES OF THE DEAD is full of concrete, at times delightful and at other times disturbing, details and images, that ground the book in reality..."

This prognosticating comes into play more often than anyone anticipates, when Janina’s neighbors start turning up dead, in mysterious and increasingly suspicious circumstances. Janina, who is mourning the disappearance of “my Little Girls” (whose identities are gradually revealed over the course of the novel) becomes convinced that these men --- all of whom are poachers or hunters of one variety or another --- have fallen victim to the animals they have wronged in life. “When you kill them, and they die in Fear and Terror…you doom them to hell, and the whole world changes into hell.” The police are maddeningly unresponsive to Janina’s lengthy letters outlining her theories about the crimes, and although her small group of friends tolerates her hypothesis, it becomes increasingly clear that even they question the validity of her claims.

DRIVE YOUR PLOW OVER THE BONES OF THE DEAD is full of concrete, at times delightful and at other times disturbing, details and images, that ground the book in reality even though at times it verges on the language of myth or fable. It’s also surprisingly funny in spots, not only in the ironic portrayals of Janina’s sleuthing, but also in scenes like the one in which the reappearance of the town dentist heralds the arrival of spring: “The Dentist doesn’t really work in winter; it’s impossible to do anything here in winter, people lose interest in their health, and besides, it’s dark and his sight is poor.”

Lloyd-Jones’ translation is skillful and fluid, although English readers will have the curious experience of being entirely unable to appreciate one whole subplot of the novel, about the difficulty of translating the verse of William Blake into Polish. However, sections like that offer an opportunity for readers to reflect on the monumental difficulty of the translator’s task, and to appreciate all the more both Tokarczuk’s energetic talent and Lloyd-Jones’ skill at capturing it.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on August 16, 2019

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead
written by Olga Tokarczuk, translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones

  • Publication Date: August 13, 2019
  • Genres: Fiction, Humor, Literary Fiction, Mystery
  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Riverhead Books
  • ISBN-10: 0525541330
  • ISBN-13: 9780525541332