Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk

Translated from the Polish by Antonia Lloyd Jones, co-funded by the Creative Europe Programme of the European Union

Polish writer and activist Olga Tokarczuk (t’ KAR chook) won the Nobel Prize for Literature 2018 and the 2018 Booker International Prize for her novel Flights

Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead (2009) was finally published in English in 2019.

It is about an old woman, Janina Duszejko – she doesn’t like her first name and prefers to be addressed as Mrs. Duszejko – who lives alone on a high wind-swept plateau in the south-west of Poland, close to the border with the Czech Republic.

In her youth she was an engineer, built bridges in Syria, had an affaire with a Protestant, but shared her bed with a Catholic, and now teachers English one day a week to 12 year olds. She believes in astrology; that Animals have reasoning and seek Vengeance ; and writes essays to magazines about the fascinating connection between Astrology and TV programming. But she has Ailments, a vivid imagination and raw emotions just below the surface where the pain of her Ailments live – simple nouns like Ailments and Folly are capitalised, like in the works of William Blake, from where the title comes. She has Theories, including why people find other people attractive, but some not, about almost everything; why magpies need lots of bathes, why foxes run in straight lines, and why Evolution is not about adaptation but about Beauty. And buys clothes too big for her, she likes the freedom. A vivid Dreamer of her dead family – her Mother and Grandmother appear to her in her boiler room dressed and ready for church – and a believer in a planet crossing an invisible point that causes two red fruits to fall from a wild rose bush. She cries easily.

She tends to the houses abandoned by their owners in the winter and wants to write her autobiography. She calls people, not by their given names but by what they suggest: Oddball, Dizzy, Dig Foot, Good News, and Black Coat. She finds words like ‘priority’, ‘cadaver’, and ‘cohabitee’ ugly and hideous.

The story opens with a death, a strange death, and is followed by three others; all victims are hunters and Mrs. Duszejko is certain the deaths are deliberately caused by Animals, deer, foxes, and boars, in retribution for the regular slaughter of their relatives by these criminals. And she sets out to prove it.

Her neighbours call her that crazy old woman.

The story is told in the first person, from the mouth of this crazy old woman. This allows for Tokarczuk’s theme, society’s disdain for the marginalised, their fear of the other but never is this message didactic; it is told with humour, irony, and a lightness of touch. The writing is adventurous, unexpected, insightful, (“Are you religious?” “Yes.” “What?” “An atheist.”), and a joy to read, and, in the end, it is about how there is really nothing called evil, it doesn’t exist; there is just need, sometimes misguided, overwrought, and out of all proportion, but need nonetheless.

The Stars and the Planets are Right about everything, except us humans sometimes get in the way and always for selfish reasons. As Mrs. Duszejko says, “The fact that we don’t know what’s going to happen in the future is a terrible mistake in the programming of the world. It should be fixed at the first opportunity.”

Here is a telephone interview with Olga Tokarczuk about her Nobel Prize win. She took the call while driving in a car in Germany.

You can listen to Tocarczuk talk about writing and Poland (with English Sub-titles) here.

You can buy the Kindle, and other editions here. Also on this Australian Amazon site you can ‘look inside’ and sample some of the text before you buy.

The End of Loneliness by Benedict Wells

Swiss-German writer Benedict Wells; real name, Benedict von Schirach

Marcel Proust’s monumental – 7 volume – novel, certainly the longest, and arguably the best novel ever written,  À la Recherche du temps perdu, sometimes translated as In Search of Lost Time or Remembrance of Things Past was the first to use memory as a novelistic tool. It appeared in English in 1922, the year of Proust’s death, and helped to change the way literary novels were written; its stream of consciousness technique was revolutionary at the time but still remains today as an author’s story-telling option: the Northern Ireland writer Anna Burn used it for novel Milkman, her 2018 Booker Prize winner.

Benedict Wells’  novel, The End of Loneliness (2016) is a contemporary product of how memory can ‘write’ a novel. Jules Moreau, the first person narrator, wakes up in hospital and tries to remember how he got there, but memory isn’t linear, it jumps around like a rabbit in a cage. He even draws it for us:

The End of Loneliness Memory Map

It is the story of three siblings who loose their parents when they are all very young and are sent to boarding school where they slowly drift apart, geographically, emotionally, and intellectually. Their lives seemed pre-ordained but the tragedy sets them adrift leaving them, and the reader, wondering what would their lives have been like if the accident had not happened. It is also a love story that runs parallel to Jules’s memory of the siblings’ separation and their slow and difficult return to each other.

Although an author’s dreams can sow the seeds of fiction, using dreams, real or fictional, as the basis for plot decisions, I believe is a lazy option for a writer. One reviewer warns that this ‘may irk the critical’. However, Wells keeps the writer’s interest with slight, but intriguing, references to some event in the future:

‘… all this had nothing to do with what happened later.’

But the real star of the show is memory. Only twice, before the end, does the narrative return to the present: Jules lying in a hospital bed, where his children are mentioned. Children? There’s been no mention of children. This is another reference to the ‘future’ which pricks the writer’s curiosity and adds to the page-turning momentum.

In contemporary literary fiction relationships and character are far more important than plot; but the set up – an injured man with plenty of hospital time remembering his past to understand who he is and why he is there – is credible and neat, and although the prose is straight-forward the emotional pull is strong which has a lot to do with Well’s talent. The word ‘tear-jerker’ has been used, too much I think, in many reviews of this book.

Although it is his fourth novel it’s a book that Wells had to write; it was stuck in his head for seven years but then, following its publication and success, his head was free to write the novels he wants to write. I look forward to those.

Wells changed his name to remain free from his famous family and chose ‘Wells’ from his writing mentor, John Irving’s hero Homer Wells in his novel Cider House Rules (1985).

Here is an interview, in German with English sub-titles, with Wells when he won the European Prize for Literature in 2016 for The End of Loneliness; and you can watch another interview with Wells, in English, when the book was translated into French, here.