Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead

Olga Tokarczuk

Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones

Published 12 September 2018
French paperback with flaps, 272 pages

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I. NOW PAY ATTENTION

Once meek, and in a perilous path,
The just man kept his course along
The vale of death.

I am already at an age and additionally in a state where I must always wash my feet thoroughly before bed, in the event of having to be removed by an ambulance in the Night.

Had I examined the Ephemerides that evening to see what was happening in the sky, I wouldn’t have gone to bed at all. Meanwhile I had fallen very fast asleep; I had helped myself with an infusion of hops, and I also took two valerian pills. So when I was woken in the middle of the Night by hammering on the door – violent, immoderate and thus ill-omened – I was unable to come round. I sprang up and stood by the bed, unsteadily, because my sleepy, shaky body couldn’t make the leap from the innocence of sleep into wakefulness. I felt weak and began to reel, as if about to lose consciousness. Unfortunately this has been happening to me lately, and has to do with my Ailments. I had to sit down and tell myself several times: I’m at home, it’s Night, someone’s banging on the door; only then did I manage to control my nerves. As I searched for my slippers in the dark, I could hear that whoever had been banging was now walking around the house, muttering. Downstairs, in the cubbyhole for the electrical meters, I keep the pepper spray Dizzy gave me because of the poachers, and that was what now came to mind. In the darkness I managed to seek out the familiar, cold aerosol shape, and thus armed, I switched on the outside light, then looked at the porch through a small side window. There was a crunch of snow, and into my field of vision came my neighbour, whom I call Oddball. He was wrapping himself in the tails of the old sheepskin coat I’d sometimes seen him wearing as he worked outside the house. Below the coat I could see his striped pyjamas and heavy hiking boots.

‘Open up,’ he said.

With undisguised astonishment he cast a glance at my linen suit (I sleep in something the Professor and his wife wanted to throw away last summer, which reminds me of a fashion from the past and the days of my youth – thus I combine the Practical and the Sentimental) and without a by-your-leave he came inside.

‘Please get dressed. Big Foot is dead.’

For a while I was speechless with shock; without a word I put on my tall snow boots and the first fleece to hand from the coat rack. Outside, in the pool of light falling from the porch lamp, the snow was changing into a slow, sleepy shower. Oddball stood next to me in silence, tall, thin and bony like a figure sketched in a few pencil strokes. Every time he moved, snow fell from him like icing sugar from pastry ribbons.

‘What do you mean, dead?’ I finally asked, my throat tightening, as I opened the door, but Oddball didn’t answer.

He generally doesn’t say much. He must have Mercury in a reticent sign, I reckon it’s in Capricorn or on the cusp, in square or maybe in opposition to Saturn. It could also be Mercury in retrograde – that produces reserve. We left the house and were instantly engulfed by the familiar cold, wet air that reminds us every winter that the world was not created for Mankind, and for at least half the year it shows us how very hostile it is to us. The frost brutally assailed our cheeks, and clouds of white steam came streaming from our mouths. The porch light went out automatically and we walked across the crunching snow in total darkness, except for Oddball’s headlamp, which pierced the pitch dark in one shifting spot, just in front of him, as I tripped along in the Murk behind him.

‘Don’t you have a torch?’ he asked.

Of course I had one, but I wouldn’t be able to tell where it was until morning, in the daylight. It’s a feature of torches that they’re only visible in the daytime.

Big Foot’s cottage stood slightly out of the way, higher up than the other houses. It was one of three inhabited all year round. Only he, Oddball and I lived here without fear of the winter; all the other inhabitants had sealed their houses shut in October, drained the water from the pipes and gone back to the city.

Now we turned off the partly cleared road that runs across our hamlet and splits into paths leading to each of the houses. A path trodden in deep snow led to Big Foot’s house, so narrow that you had to set one foot behind the other while trying to keep your balance.

‘It won’t be a pretty sight,’ warned Oddball, turning to face me, and briefly blinding me with his headlamp.

I wasn’t expecting anything else. For a while he was silent, and then, as if to explain himself, he said: ‘I was alarmed by the light in his kitchen and the dog barking so plaintively. Didn’t you hear it?’

No, I didn’t. I was asleep, numbed by hops and valerian.

‘Where is she now, the Dog?’

‘I took her away from here – she’s at my place, I fed her and she seemed to calm down.’

Another moment of silence.

‘He always put out the light and went to bed early to save money, but this time it continued to burn. A bright streak against the snow. Visible from my bedroom window. So I went over there, thinking he might have got drunk or was doing the dog harm, for it to be howling like that.’

We passed a tumbledown barn and moments later Oddball’s torch fetched out of the darkness two pairs of shining eyes, pale green and fluorescent.

‘Look, Deer,’ I said in a raised whisper, grabbing him by the coat sleeve. ‘They’ve come so close to the house. Aren’t they afraid?’

The Deer were standing in the snow almost up to their bellies. They gazed at us calmly, as if we had caught them in the middle of performing a ritual whose meaning we couldn’t fathom. It was dark, so I couldn’t tell if they were the same Young Ladies who had come here from the Czech Republic in the autumn, or some new ones. And in fact why only two? That time there had been at least four of them.

‘Go home,’ I said to the Deer, and started waving my arms. They twitched, but didn’t move. They calmly stared after us, all the way to the front door. A shiver ran through me.

Meanwhile Oddball was stamping his feet to shake the snow off his boots outside the neglected cottage. The small windows were sealed with plastic and cardboard, and the wooden door was covered with black tar paper.

(...)

With Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, Man Booker International Prize-winner Olga Tokarczuk returns with a subversive, entertaining noir novel. In a remote Polish village, Janina Duszejko, an eccentric woman in her sixties, recounts the events surrounding the disappearance of her two dogs. She is reclusive, preferring the company of animals to people; she’s unconventional, believing in the stars; and she is fond of the poetry of William Blake, from whose work the title of the book is taken. When members of a local hunting club are found murdered, Duszejko becomes involved in the investigation. By no means a conventional crime story, this existential thriller by ‘one of Europe’s major humanist writers’ (Guardian) offers thought-provoking ideas on our perceptions of madness, injustice against marginalized people, animal rights, the hypocrisy of traditional religion, belief in predestination – and caused a genuine political uproar in Tokarczuk’s native Poland.

‘A magnificent writer.’
— Svetlana Alexievich, 2015 Nobel Prize-winner

‘A writer on the level of W. G. Sebald.’
— Annie Proulx, author of The Shipping News

‘Strange, mordantly funny, consoling and wise, Olga Tokarczuk’s novels fill the reader’s mind with intimations of a unique consciousness. Her latest novel to be translated into English, Drive Your Plow Over The Bones of The Dead is simultaneously unsettling and oddly companionable. Suffused with William Blake, astrological lore, and the landscapes of middle Europe, it’s both a meditation on human compassion and a murder mystery that lingers in the imagination.’
— Marcel Theroux, author of Strange Bodies

‘I loved this wry, richly melancholic philosophical mystery. It’s a compelling and endlessly thought-provoking novel, luminous with the strangeness of existence.’
— Megan Hunter, author of The End We Start From

‘One among a very few signal European novelists of the past quarter-century.’
— The Economist

Praise for Flights

‘Tokarczuk is one of Europe’s most daring and original writers, and this astonishing performance is her glittering, bravura entry in the literature of ideas. A select few novels possess the wonder of music, and this is one of them. Flights is an international, mercurial, and always generous book, to be endlessly revisited. Like a glorious, charmingly impertinent travel companion, it reflects, challenges, and rewards.’
— Eileen Battersby, Los Angeles Review of Books

‘Olga Tokarczuk is a household name in Poland and one of Europe’s major humanist writers, working here in the continental tradition of the “thinking” or essayistic novel. Flights has echoes of WG Sebald, Milan Kundera, Danilo Kiš and Dubravka Ugrešić, but Tokarczuk inhabits a rebellious, playful register very much her own. ... Flights is a passionate and enchantingly discursive plea for meaningful connectedness, for the acceptance of “fluidity, mobility, illusoriness”. After all, Tokarczuk reminds us, “Barbarians don’t travel. They simply go to destinations or conduct raids.” Hotels on the continent would do well to have a copy of Flights on the bedside table. I can think of no better travel companion in these turbulent, fanatical times.’
— Kapka Kassabova, Guardian

Flights could almost be an inventory of the ways narrative can serve a writer short of, and beyond, telling a story. The book’s prose is a lucid medium in which narrative crystals grow to an ideal size, independent structures not disturbing the balance of the whole … Much of the pleasure of reading Flights comes from the essay clusters embedded between sections of narratives ... The cascades of concise interstitial passages are often satisfying riffs on time and space, bodies and language, repetition and uniqueness … Jennifer Croft’s translation is exceptionally adventurous … she can give the impression, not of passing on meanings long after the event, but of being the present at the moment when language reached out to thought.’
— Adam Mars-Jones, London Review of Books

‘In the vein of W. G. Sebald, Flights knits together snippets of fiction, narrative and reflection to meditate on human anatomy and the meaning of travel: this is a delicate, ingenious book that is constantly making new connections.’
— Justine Jordan, Guardian 

‘A profound meditation on time, mythology, the self and human anatomy … We drift along happily on her flights of fancy, as her travels across space give way to journeys through history and deep into the psyche. Jennifer Croft’s bump-free translation only adds to the reader’s pleasure.’
— Chris Moss, Prospect Magazine

‘An indisputable masterpiece of “controlled psychosis”… Punctuated by maps and figures, the discursive novel is reminiscent of the work of Sebald. The threads ultimately converge in a remarkable way, making this an extraordinary accomplishment.’
— Publishers Weekly (starred)

‘Tokarczuk examines questions of travel in our increasingly interconnected and fast-moving world. ... Trained as a psychologist, Tokarczuk is interested in what connects the human soul and body. It is a leitmotif that, despite the apparent lack of a single plot, tightly weaves the text’s different strands – of fiction, memoir and essay – into a whole. Some chapters are more akin to traditional travel notes: sketches of airport encounters, fellow travellers’ “confessions of whole lifetimes”, and other things people often jot down when on a journey. There are also beautiful set pieces, occasionally split into recurring threads.’
— Anna Aslanyan, Spectator

‘Disarming and wonderfully encouraging…Croft’s translation from Polish is light as a feather yet captures well the economy and depth of Tokarczuk’s deceptively simple style. A welcome reminder of how love drives out fear and also a worthy Man Booker International winner for 2018.’
— The Millions

‘An extraordinary book that roams in space and time, and is lucid and full of curiosity. I wish I could write like her.’
— Darran Anderson, Irish Times

Olga Tokarczuk is one of Poland’s best and most beloved authors. Her novel Flights won the 2018 Man Booker International Prize, in Jennifer Croft’s translation. In 2015 she received the Brueckepreis and the prestigious annual literary award from Poland’s Ministry of Culture and National Heritage, as well as Poland’s highest literary honour, the Nike and the Nike Readers’ Prize. Tokarczuk also received a Nike in 2009 for Flights. She is the author of nine novels, three short story collections and has been translated into a dozen languages.

Antonia Lloyd-Jones translates from Polish, and is the 2018 winner of the Transatlantyk Award for the most outstanding promoter of Polish literature abroad. She has translated works by several of Poland’s leading contemporary novelists and reportage authors, as well as crime fiction, poetry and children’s books. She is a mentor for the Emerging Translators’ Mentorship Programme, and former co-chair of the UK Translators Association.