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June 2021: Drive Your Plow Over The Bones Of The Dead (Tokarczuk)

posted Jul 13, 2021, 6:37 PM by East Bay Smith Club

By now we are all familiar with the literary trope of the unreliable narrator, but what do you call a narrator that makes you suspect that you are becoming an unreliable reader?  Such a narrator constantly surprises you with revelations that you didn’t see coming, but that seem to make perfect sense once revealed.  “Of course,” you find yourself saying, even though your expectations are still shaking their heads in disbelief and rapidly shifting gears.   Whatever the name for such a narrator, one thing is certain, they can be an entertaining, enlightening, and somewhat exasperating guide when there is a mystery to be solved. 


The narrator and main character of Olga Tokarczuk’s novel is an elderly woman named Janina Duszejko, who lives in a remote Polish village on a high plateau next to the border with the Czech Republic.   A die-hard vegetarian and enthusiast for astrology, she supplements her income by caring for the vacant homes of the village’s summer residents.  Considered to be slightly mad by many of the locals, she leads a mostly solitary life, tending her home and garden, nursing a mysterious and often debilitating ailment, and calculating horoscopes to help her understand everything from the lives of her neighbors to the program selections on television.


At the beginning of the novel, this somewhat tranquil life is disrupted when a neighbor knocks on her door in the middle of the night to ask for her to help.  Another neighbor has died in his home, and together they make him more presentable and wait for the police to arrive.  This is just the first of a series of mysterious deaths that will shake the small village in the coming months.  Here, it seems, is a plot that we know well:  murders plague a small village.  The police are baffled.  The easy to ignore elderly lady, who many dismiss as harmless and slightly batty, slowly uncovers clues, sees through deceptions, and solves the mystery.


The problem is that our narrator does not seem that interested in fulfilling this type.   Rather than trying to solve the mystery over the course of the book, she thinks she has it solved.  The men who are dying are all hunters, and their strange deaths are justifiable acts of revenge on the part of the local animals who are tired of the slaughter.   Janina tries to convince the local police of this fact, but they are not persuaded, and they struggle on to solve the case without her help and without us, the readers.


Certainly, clues about the murders will come our way as the book progresses, but mostly we are given more and more insights into the fascinating life and mind of our narrator.  She seems like she belongs to the mountains she lives on, but she too is a relative newcomer, with an interesting and varied past.   She is older and frequently ill, but she is not done with romance or, at least, casual sexual encounters.  She may come across as a homebody, but in her trusty Suzuki Samurai she is undeterred and unconstrained by the ice and snow that intimidate others. Her life might seem solitary, but she has a circle of devoted friends, each of whom she refers to with a nickname.  One of these friends, nicknamed Dizzy, is a former pupil of hers with whom she is translating the works of William Blake into Polish.


Most of us were charmed by Janina from the start, and we eagerly read on even as her attention turned away from the murders.  Tokarczuk does a masterful job of building a sense of suspense and foreboding, even when we are mostly just learning more and more about the life of our narrator.  Some of our members described being unable to put the book down at times.  One even confessed to “walking while reading” (a shout out there to Anna Burns’s Milkman, one of our previous selections).


Although most of us liked Janina, some found her puzzling and somewhat repulsive, and many of us noted that our attitudes towards her changed as the novel developed, sometimes swinging from one extreme to the other.   Others did not think that Tokarczuk gave us a consistent or believable character.   Janina’s past suggested that she was highly intelligent and competent woman with a successful career, so why is she now so obsessed with astrology and with theories that blur all distinctions between animals and humans?   Why is she satisfied with such a difficult and secluded life amongst people who dismiss her so readily?


Perhaps the book’s connections to William Blake can give us some insight into these questions.  The title is taken from one of his most famous poems, “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell,” and quotations from his works start each chapter.   Several themes in the book echo aspects of Blakes attitudes and philosophy, including his distrust of organized and dogmatic religion and his focus on the importance of the human imagination and on mystical experiences.  Although actively engaged with his times and with other influential intellectuals, Blake himself was considered mad by many due to the idiosyncratic views and by his insistence that he saw visions.  Largely ignored while alive, his genius and contributions to art and literature were only fully recognized after his death.  


Like Janina, therefore, Blake seems to have blurred the line between madness and genius and between prophecy and delusion.   As with Blake, therefore, it may take a while for us to realize the legacy of the time we just spent with Janina.  Will we remember her adventures as an interesting, and somewhat disturbing, brush with delusion and madness, or will we take away some important truths from her unconventional understanding of the natural world and of our place in it?  Perhaps to find out, some of us will plow up the bones once more by reading the book for a second time.