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