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Strange but Brilliant: Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead

The strangest book I’ve had the chance to read this year is Olga Tokarczuk’s renowned novel Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead. Published in 2009 and translated into English in 2018 by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, this fascinating story became the first to introduce me to Polish literature – something completely new but kind of felt glad about since my studies focus on literature, a field one can never broaden too much. An “unconventional crime story” which is also characterized as an “existential thriller,” Drive Your Plow absorbs the reader into the contemplative and intriguing mind of an ageing Polish woman, Janina Duszejko, who lives in a remote Polish village, situated in Kłodzko, near the border of the Czech Republic. The fact that it’s a crime story immediately raised my interest; however, the novel utterly exceeded my expectations for it makes an avid reader contemplate as much as follow the chain of events that concern a set of murders.

My first impression, reading the first few chapters, was bewilderment but also feeling how refreshing it was to read this type of narrative. Of course, before starting Drive Your Plow, I had read Victorian literature for a while which, as an eager reader, feels as if a flood of beautiful English imagery entered my mind and overwhelmed me with its drama, sentimentality, poetical language and beautiful didacticism. Tokarczuk’s novel was structurally the complete opposite: it felt refreshing, as if walking outside on a cold, sharp and snowy winter evening that revives you and your senses. The translation is beautifully done, and I was mesmerized by the text, and Mrs. Duszejko is a brilliantly unconventional character that keeps the reader intrigued. The chilling and strange beginning of the novel immediately describes a cold winter night on which Mrs. Duszejko is told that her neighbor is dead. What follows is an uncomfortable yet thrilling account of what the protagonist with her other neighbor find in the dead hunter’s cottage. This sets into motion what seems like an innocent account of a story, but it hides behind itself a sad tragedy.

Tokarczuk’s protagonist is a fascinating woman whose type I’ve rarely come across in literature. She’s in her sixties, which is made especially notable by her suffering from physical ailments; and a reclusive, but generally good-hearted, person who lives further off on a plateau in what’s already a remote Polish village and prefers the company of animals. She’s certainly interesting, for she realizes the burden of her age, as an old advocate of animals' rights, and even entertaining: she hates her first name and frankly says there’s no imagination in having official first- and surnames. Therefore, she makes up names for every person she meets – for example, the closest ones to her are “Dizzy,” “Good News,” and “Oddball.” No ordinary old lady, Mrs. Duszejko actively studies astrology for she believes in the planetary movements and that through them she can understand people. I’ll admit, I mostly didn’t understand when she would share her studying of horoscopes; nevertheless, her presentation of planets and horoscopes is captivating. She’s also fond of William Blake’s poetry which, as an English student, I find just lovely. Seems there was a little English literature in this Polish novel after all, I thought.

My fascination kept growing as I read the book, for Mrs. Duszejko (in the spirit of hating names, I refer to her as such), as bizarre as she sometimes is and taking her time to reveal more of herself, also captivates with her reflections, particularly her “Theories.” According to one, “our cerebellum has not been correctly connected to our brain;” if it were, “we would possess full knowledge of our own anatomy, of what was happening inside our bodies” for, truly, we don’t understand this “troublesome luggage” that is our body without medical tools (88). Thoroughly contemplative, she also expresses something that’s stuck with me from the novel: “Anger,” she says, “makes the mind clear and incisive, able to see more. It sweeps up the other emotions and takes control of the body. Without a doubt Anger is the source of all wisdom, for Anger has the power to exceed any limits” (25). Mrs. Duszejko certainly becomes angry, but overall manages to hide her true anger until almost the very end – something the reader might forget as she goes along the old lady’s narration who herself tries to make sense of what’s happening around her.

The story, at the same time, maintains an ominous atmosphere for it becomes clear that Mrs. Duszejko – a mostly solitary character, close to nature and caring towards animals – is strongly against the hunting traditions of the village and sees hunting as an atrocious crime. She goes so far as trying to get the authorities involved and in one instance wishes to report an incident with a dead animal as cold-blooded murder. This doesn’t appear rational; yet you feel for her because when she contemplates nature her thoughts and opinions appear philosophical rather than ramblings of an ageing woman in her sixties. She considers hunting evil for it is excessive as well as wrongly justified through religion, since she considers animals as equal. Thus, it also makes you think of the violent relationship between man and nature – the hold of the Christian anthropocentric beliefs that have existed since the renaissance and enlightenment. However, occasionally Duszejko doesn’t make a strong case for her mental stability: for example, she reveals she keeps animal remains and even hands a deer trotter to someone, saying it’s “a bit like the Finger of God.”

As Drive Your Plow progresses, it becomes more thrilling when other, more prominent, men, who are also hunters, of the village are found dead, and Mrs. Duszejko creates her own bizarre theory. The deaths begin with the first one being an accident; the neighbor, whom she calls “Big Foot,” choked on a deer bone, and she takes to notice there are deer calmly observing about his cottage the night of his death. Mrs. Duszejko sees this as perhaps the revenge of the poor butchered deer “beyond the grave.” The deaths following appear clearly as murders, but they also involve nature as if creatures of the forest managed to kill these hunters. Our protagonist becomes confident in her theory, openly saying that animals are starting to take revenge on humans. She even sends letters of her arguments to the police. While fascinating – and resembling almost a disturbing fairy tale – this is another case that makes you wonder of her sanity. She could agree with the other villagers, that these men were involved in suspicious business with each other which was a risk to their lives, but she doesn’t concur. Of course, Mrs. Duszejko comes off as a bit eccentric from the start, but could her reaction also be considered suspicious?

Tokarczuk, while making us wonder of Mrs. Duszejko’s sanity, presents us a strange, but also in her own intelligent way, a brilliant character. She can be truly amusing about life and people; her lighter contemplations can make you see the world differently; and her more philosophical thoughts makes the reader consider man’s relationship to animal, and the position of animals as equal creatures to man. Fascinatingly the novel also seems to test the reader in making us reflect if we consider Mrs. Duszejko becoming mad or not towards the end – and if so, how much? You wonder if her attitude towards hunting and the hunters’ deaths is justified to the extent that there’s the fear these men would have taken it too far. If you’re interested in something new and yet thrilling for winter reading, try the mesmerizing Drive Your Plow and keep an open mind with our fascinating Mrs. Duszejko.

An English major in University of Helsinki who adores culture's most valuable and beautiful subjects like literature and art.
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