Friday, February 07, 2020

Fiction Review: Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead

When Book Cougars, one of my favorite podcasts, announced a February read-along of the novel, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk (translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones), I thought it was a very odd--and sort of creepy--title! Then I found out that this little novel from Poland was short-listed for the International Booker Prize, long-listed for the National Book Award for Translated Fiction, and won the 2018 Nobel Prize in Literature. Impressive! This quirky, funny, thoughtful novel deserved all those accolades, and I am glad to have read it.

An older Polish woman named Janina (though she dislikes her name and anyone who calls her by it) lives in a remote rural area near the Czech border. She is an ex-civil engineer who used to build bridges and now teaches English to children and studies astrology. While her home is in a lovely area during the short summer, the winters there are fierce and lengthy, when Janina helps to caretake for the people who own summer homes there. One night, Janina's neighbor, Oddball (she often nicknames people rather than remembering their names), comes to her door to ask for her assistance; their other neighbor, Big Foot, is dead. As the only three people in the area during the winter, the two of them go to Big Foot's small cabin and find he has choked to death on a deer bone, with evidence of the deer he poached in the kitchen. Janina, a staunch vegetarian, is certain that the animals took revenge on the man who had killed so many of their brethren, though the police don't seem impressed by her theory once they arrive. Shortly afterward, another suspicious death occurs in the same area, and this time, the police determine that it was murder. As Janina consults the stars and spends time with her friends--including Dizzy, her former student who engages Janina in helping him translate William Blake's works--other deaths occur, and she continues to hound the police about her theory that the animals are taking revenge on the hunters in the area.

I know this sounds like an odd plot description ... and it is an odd sort of book but in a good way. It is unexpectedly funny--often in a way that had me reading passages aloud to my husband, like this one, with Janina musing about her quiet neighbor, Oddball:
"With age, many men come down with testosterone autism, the symptoms of which are a gradual decline in social intelligence and capacity for interpersonal communications, as well as a reduced ability to formulate thoughts. The Person beset by this Ailment becomes taciturn and appears to be lost in contemplation. He develops an interest in various Tools and machinery, and he's drawn to the Second World War and the biographies of famous people, mainly politicians and villains. His capacity to read novels almost entirely vanishes; testosterone autism disturbs the character's psychological understanding. I think Oddball was suffering from this Ailment."
We both laughed over this, since I often complain my husband barely speaks to me (though he does still love to read novels). The entire novel is peppered with passages that either made me laugh out loud or were insightful thoughts that made me nod my head in agreement, like:
"Once we have reached a certain age, it is hard to be reconciled to the fact that people are always going to be impatient with us."

In fact, the incredible cleverness and humor in this book make its translation seem even more amazing. I think it must be hard to translate humor and wordplay into a different language, but this translator has done a magnificent job, including passages from Blake that Janina and Dizzy translate  (the title itself is a line from Blake). Aside from the pure pleasure of reading the narrative and being privy to Janina's thoughts, it's an interesting and intriguing plot, a murder mystery set in a small community. Who is killing off the local hunters? Could Janina actually be right? The novel does make you stop and wonder. My book is filled with tabbed pages with quotes that I want to write down, and I thoroughly enjoyed both the mystery and spending time with quirky Janina and her friends.

274 pages, Riverhead Books

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Listen to a sample of the audio book, narrated by Beata Poizniak in a lovely Polish accent, here and/or download it from Audible.

You can purchase Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead from an independent bookstore, either locally or online, here:
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  1. It's difficult to find funny books so it's great that this one made you laugh out loud.