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Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead

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In a remote Polish village, Janina devotes the dark winter days to studying astrology, translating the poetry of William Blake, and taking care of the summer homes of wealthy Warsaw residents. Her reputation as a crank and a recluse is amplified by her not-so-secret preference for the company of animals over humans. Then a neighbor, Big Foot, turns up dead. Soon other bodies are discovered, in increasingly strange circumstances. As suspicions mount, Janina inserts herself into the investigation, certain that she knows whodunit. If only anyone would pay her mind . . .

A deeply satisfying thriller cum fairy tale, Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead is a provocative exploration of the murky borderland between sanity and madness, justice and tradition, autonomy and fate. Whom do we deem sane? it asks. Who is worthy of a voice?

Duration: 11 hours 39 minutes.

9 pages, Audible Audio

First published November 25, 2009

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About the author

Olga Tokarczuk

66 books5,246 followers
Olga Tokarczuk is one of Poland's most celebrated and beloved authors, a winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature and the Man Booker International Prize, as well as her country's highest literary honor, the Nike. She is the author of eight novels and two short story collections, and has been translated into more than thirty languages.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 10,125 reviews
Profile Image for Robin.
475 reviews2,545 followers
April 13, 2020
Oh, YES.

Literary, quirky, snarky, noir. Asks the same questions that Dostoevsky asks in Crime and Punishment - who has the right to live? who has the right to kill? and what's the difference between a poacher and a hunter, anyway? (that last question is Tokarczuk's, not Dostoevsky's....)

These questions are asked in a most unique way. A middle aged woman in rural Poland, a woman who is best described as eccentric (obsessed with astrology, plagued by "ailments" both physical and psychological), finds herself in the middle of something of a murder mystery. The world is out of order. Is it because Saturn is in the 8th house? Or because the animals have had enough, at long last?

This is an utter delight to read. I enjoyed being in the head of this marvellously unreliable narrator, smirked at her many amusing observations, her interactions with the people in her life and the natural world. What an original voice. That voice is everything in this book. The way she capitalizes certain words, assigns her own names to people, ponders the proverbs of William Blake (where the fabulous title of this novel originates). Janina is someone I will not soon forget.

At the same time, this book is dark and tinged throughout with death. Death of all creatures, humans included. The cruelty of the elements, of seclusion. The loneliness experienced by a group of misfits. The solitary steps of one going against the tide. The unstoppable universe, with everyone's fate, on a crash course.

It's this crash course that drives the reader through these pages. You sort of know what's happening, but need to see it played out, the way it was written in the stars, for better or worse.

Olga Tokarczuk, 2018 winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, has truly impressed me. What an inspiration. It shouldn't be a surprise though - this is her destiny, after all.
Profile Image for Michael Finocchiaro.
Author 3 books5,470 followers
March 3, 2020
Never underestimate the strength and fortitude of middle-age ladies. What makes this novel stand out is precisely its unusual protagonist: single, eccentric, living in the woods with her astrology. A woman we would pass on the street and ignore, like many do in the telling of the tale, much to their own disadvantage...

Janine hates her name and loves giving her own names to folks in her life:
The naming of Big Foot occured in a similar way. It was quite straightforward - it suggested itself to me when I saw his footprints in the snow...Unfortunately, I couldn't choose a suitable name for myself. I regard that the one that's written on my identity card as scandalously wrong for me and unfair - Janina. I think my real name is Emily, or Joanna. Sometimes I think it's something like Irmtrude too. Or Bellona. Or Medea." (p. 19). The mention of Medea is particularly significant in what follows.

She is quite alone and saddened when she tries to save an abused animal which returns to its abusive home when she opens her door. That was the last I'd seen of her. I'd called her, annoye at letting myself be led up the garden path so easily, and helpless in the path of the sinister workings of bondage. I'd started to put on my boots, but that terrible gray morning alarmed me. Sometimes I feel as if we're living inside a tomb, a large spacious one for lots of people. I looked at the world wreathed in gray Murk, cold and nasty. The prison is not outside, but inside each of us. Perhaps we simply don't know how to live without it. (p. 32) I found this a nice update to Nietsche's abyss.

Her concept of spirituality is Kantian to a degree:And it will unfold for us, for it is our mother, this Light, and we came from it. We even carry a particle of it within us, each of us, even Big Foot. So in fact death should please us." (p. 39)

Many times in the book, Janine observes nature very carefully and sees the interdependency of relationships (see page 98 for some aspects of the life of certain birds). This reminded me a bit of The Overstory in that nature is very important to the action in the book.

The book is populated with characters such as Good News who has a shop that Janine adores and the existential Dentist who performs surgery illegally out in a yard. (p. 136) and her best friend Dizzy who translates William Blake poetry with Janine.

What I liked was her keen sense of observation such as the overuse of expressions by people: These words or phrases are the key to their intellect. Mr. "Apparently," Mr. "Generally," Mrs. "Probably," Mr. "Fucking," Mrs. "Don't You Think," Mr. "As If." The President was Mr. "In Truth." Of course there are entire fashions for some words, just like the ones that for some crazy reason suddenly everyone start going about in identical shows or clothes - people just as suddenly start using one particular word or phrase. Recently the word "generally" was fashionable but now "actually" is out in front." (p. 185). I think this is the kind of observation I could have read in KOK or DFW.

There is also a great deal of humor and irony, particularly in her various appeals to the police such as the letter about various trials of animals throughout history (p. 190). She has some interesting theories: The psyche is our defense system - it makes sure we'll never understand what's going on around us. Its main task is to filter information, even though the capabilities of our brains are enormous. For it would be impossible to carry the weight of this knowledge Because every tiny particle of the world is made of suffering. (p. 225)

This is a powerful piece of literature and I am definitely intrigued and want to read more by this author.
Profile Image for Fionnuala.
774 reviews
January 15, 2020
I've carried some William Blake verses around in a pocket of my memory for years. To say I studied them at school is probably not quite accurate since I don't remember anything I learned about Auguries of Innocence. All the same, Blake's verses lent themselves to memorizing better than many others, and so they stuck fast in my idiosyncratic mind. I loved them so much that I once inscribed a verse from Blake on a friend's birthday card convinced that To see a World in a Grain of Sand, and a Heaven in a Wild Flower was the most beautiful sentiment ever expressed.
That friendship didn't last.
When next I thought of writing lines of poetry on a friend's birthday card, I chose Robert Frost instead. That friendship lasted much better. Reader, I married him!

The narrator of this book (let's call her Venus since she's an amateur astrologer who has an intense dislike for her own name (and she gives nicknames to everyone around her)), is even more obsessed with William Blake than I ever was. But she doesn't use him to test the potential of future partners, or at least not directly. Her test for partners is simpler. She asks them what religion they are, but doesn't seem to care a lot about their answers. I wondered if she wasn't searching for the one-in-a-thousand-million who might answer the question by saying his religion is that of the prophet Blake.
Because for Tokarczuk's narrator, Blake's Auguries of Innocence are the Gospel, and his contrary-riddled Proverbs of Hell are the Ten Commandments.

Drive your plow over the bones of the dead is one of Blake's Proverbs of Hell. It's a good title for Tokarczuk's story, but several other of his proverbs might have suited just as well. For example:
Excess of joy weeps…
A dead body, revenges, not injuries…
Improvement makes strait roads, but roads without Improvement are roads of Genius…
The bird a nest, the spider a web, man friendship…
Always be ready to speak your mind and a base man will avoid you…

Tokarczuk's Venus always speaks her mind, and like Blake, she revels in everything that is contrary. In fact, she invariably does the opposite of what people advise, and interprets every aspect of her world in her own idiosyncratic fashion — and always with the planets in mind since she's an astrologer. She is a lot more powerful than her middle-age and small stature might imply so it wouldn't be an exaggeration to call her a force of nature. The more I think about it, the more I like the name I've given her. Not only is the planet Venus called after a powerful female goddess, but it turns in the opposite direction to most of the other planets — which sums up Tokarczuk's narrator pretty neatly!


Because I enjoy finding parallels between books, I was pleased to find an odd bit of synchronicity the other day when Russell Hoban's Riddley Walker came up in conversation. I immediately had the thought that there are a few parallels between Hoban's book and Tokarczuk's. Both narrators walk about a lot, and they both give names to every stick and stone they pass by on their wanderings. And both like to speak in riddles.

There's also a preoccupation with hunting in both books, and the patron saint of hunters features in each, although he's called Saint Eustace in Riddley Walker and Saint Hubertus in Tokarczuk's book. Incidentally, Flaubert has a story about the patron saint of hunters too but he calls him Saint Julien.

But whatever the saint's name, his story is more or less the same in all versions: a nobleman, who is an indiscriminate hunter of every living creature, has a vision one day of a little Christlike figure perched between the antlers of the stag he is hunting. From that day on, he changes his ways. Hunters use his example to practice more ethical modes of hunting, hence his status as Patron Saint of the Hunt.

Tokarczuk's narrator isn't fooled by talk of ethical hunting. Like Blake she believes that As the air is to a bird, or the sea to a fish, so is contempt to the contemptible.
For hunters, she only has contempt.
The fox condemns the trap, not himself…
Profile Image for Spencer Orey.
523 reviews118 followers
November 8, 2019
The most unintentionally metal title ever??

I really enjoyed this one. I found the main character (an old woman who's obsessed with astrology but is also a pretty bad astrologer) really lovable. I mostly loved her point of view and all her little quirks.

There's a good murder mystery here and a deep meditation about our relationship to animals and hunting. Sometimes in the novel, this is direct (conversations like who are we to kill animals or judge which ones deserve to live?) and sometimes it’s subtle (the main character is deeply uncomfortable with assigned names). I'm not sure we're left with any good answers. But it made me think! And even though the main character's views veer into extremes, she was always thoughtful and had something worth listening to.

I'm not well versed in William Blake but I thought this was a cool way to talk about and use Blake's poems and letters. And via Blake, it's a very memorable title. There are some fun passages about trying to translate Blake that seemed like a fun meta commentary on reading a book like this in translation (which overall I thought was a really good translation!).

It also made me realize that if you want to win some major prizes, go write yourself a fancy noir novel. People love fancy noir. I certainly do.

(Total aside: I checked this out from the library a week before the author won the Nobel prize! It was exciting to hear the news and see the book on my shelf)
Profile Image for BlackOxford.
1,081 reviews68k followers
September 3, 2020
Natural Justice

Hypocrisy allows us to remain alive. Without it we would be forced to recognise the misery we endure and the misery we inflict. So we lie; we make evil, even if it’s necessary evil, into virtue. Untruthfulness is re-branded as ‘discretion.’ Exploitation becomes ‘providing employment.’ Nationalism hides behind a mask of religious faith. And environmental destruction is promoted as a divine right which human beings have an obligation to honour. As Mrs Janina Duszejko, Civil Engineer, English Teacher, Gnostic Astrologer, Committed Vegetarian, and translator of William Blake knows, “The whole, complex human psyche has evolved to prevent Man from understanding what he is really seeing.”

While not religious, Janina believes in cosmic order. She thinks birth, death, and the course of our lives are determined by our pre-conscious experience with the stars and the planets. Living through the long winters in the isolated mountains of Southwestern Poland have given her plenty of leisure to pursue these connections. The factual results of her research are clear: “every tiny particle of the world is made of suffering.” Her conclusion is that of William Blake himself: “Anger puts things in order and shows you the world in a nutshell; Anger restores the gift of Clarity of Vision, which it’s hard to attain in any other state... Without a doubt Anger is the source of all wisdom, for Anger has the power to exceed any limits.”

Janina is angry and she dreams of revenge - mainly against the local hunting fraternity who have killed her two dogs and any number of wild creatures whom she has befriended or admired. She is unable to break through the wall of institutional hypocrisy that the hunters have erected to protect themselves. But despite the solidarity among the local gentry, the police, the state forestry people, and even the Church, the leading hunters are found successively dead over the course of a year. Janina blames the animals and writes the authorities repeatedly to inform them of her suspicions. She doesn’t want the animals punished but forgiven as a matter of justice, for it is obvious to her if to no one else that “the world was not created for Mankind.”

Only religious fanatics and other self-serving types could argue otherwise. Oh, wait, perhaps they’re righteously angry too. Is it only hypocrites who are hypocritical?
Profile Image for Valeriu Gherghel.
Author 6 books1,211 followers
January 9, 2023
O să vă supărați, firește, dar Poartă-ți plugul... este cel mai Bizar roman citit de mine în ultimii 25 de ani și Jumătate.

Bizareria constă și în faptul că nu-l pot evalua. De asta am și amînat recenzia atîta Amar de vreme. Mi-am dat Răgaz să gîndesc, să judec, să privesc chestiunea din toate unghiurile Posibile. Iar concluzia mă întristează în primul rînd pe Mine. Nu vă mai spun că scriind propoziția de deasupra am vărsat o Lacrimă. Sărată. Romanul poate primi oricîte Steluțe poftiți, de la una la trei...

Doamna profesoară Janina Duszejko iubește Animalele și, pentru acest cuvios Motiv, se apucă să vîneze vînători. Nu spune nimănui, păstrează secretul, dar un Cititor nu neapărat foarte Isteț se prinde destul de repede cine e asasinul. Poartă-ți plugul... e o parodie de thriller, nu am ce comenta, prozatoarea a vrut să facă Mișto. Miza e alta. Trebuie să pricepem că uciderea Animalelor e o faptă cu mult mai gravă decît uciderea cîtorva ipochimeni nechibzuiți, care se distrează împușcînd la întîmplare Ființele pădurii. Îl numesc doar pe Matze, are porecla cea mai elocventă.

Cînd brațul Legii e pe cale s-o ajungă pe justițiara Janina Duszejko, un anume Boris Sznajder (om de știință pasionat pînă la pierdere de sine de Cărăbușul stacojiu, „Cucujus haematodes”) și un june traducător al lui William Blake (titlul romanului e un vers din opera poetului englez), supranumit Visătorul, o ajută să se eclipseze în Natură. Asasinul nu e pedepsit așa cum se cuvine. A omorît Numai oameni Răi și satisfacția noastră este deplină.

Am reținut, așadar, că:

a) Uciderea arbitrară a Ființelor din Pădure e un act imoral: cu asta sînt perfect de acord.
b) Că uciderea oamenilor care împușcă Animale ca să se amuze e un act aproape Moral: cu asta Nu sînt de acord.
c) Că Meniul oamenilor ar trebui să conțină mai multe Vitamine și Minerale. Cu asta sînt de acord. V-o mărturisește cu sfială un Vegetarian înrăit, care nu are de gînd (încă) să ucidă pe Nimeni.

Romanul nu m-a convins întru totul. O problemă Gravă e tratată într-un registru aproape minor. Între temă (Nu ucideți aiurea Ființele pădurii!) și ilustrarea ei Narativă găsesc o drastică incompatibilitate. Sper să Mă înșel, dar nu cred. Nu ignor faptul că romanul Olgăi Tokarczuk poate fi privit ca o Fabulă filosofică: în fond, discută și despre Căprioare.

Am reținut cîteva pasaje Interesante:

„Odată cu vîrsta, mulţi bărbaţi intră într o stare de autism testosteronic care se manifestă prin atrofierea treptată a inteligenţei sociale şi a abilităţii de comunicare, ce debilitează exprimarea gîndurilor” (p.31).

„Sănătatea e o stare incertă și nu prevestește nimic bun” (p.174).

„Sînt de părere că psihicul uman a apărut cu scopul de a ne feri de adevăr” (p.230).

Dacă Nu sînteți de acord cu Mine, Vă rog să contraatacați...

P. S. Mi-a plăcut „definiția” romanului din The Guardian: Poartă-ți plugul... ar fi „un eco-thriller existențial” (existential eco-thriller)
Profile Image for Diane S ☔.
4,690 reviews14.1k followers
October 11, 2019
3.5 "In seed time learn, in harvest teach, in winter enjoy. Drive your cart and drive, over the bones of the dead. The road to excess leads to the palace of wisdom." William Blake from the Marriage of Heaven and Hell.

The author just won the Novel Prize, announced I believe, today. This is one weird story, but somehow compelling in its strangeness. A very unusual lead character, Janina, in her sixties lives on the edge of the Czech/Polish border. She is rather a rec!use with only a few friends, but she loves the animals in Forest, and is mourning the loss of her two missing dogs. Her main occupation is the translating the poetry of William Blake. This and a few side jobs keep her occupied. She is also in bad health and occasionally her condition flares up, keeping her down and out. When bodies of those she is aquainted with are found murder, Janina tries to convince the police that they are being murdered by the animals that are being mistreated.

At one point, in this slowly paced story, I thought I would never get out of Poland. I couldn't figure out where this story was going, nor what it meant. Was Janina losing her mind? Or was it everyone else who not seeing what they should? Is this a fairy tale, a mystery or maybe a parable? Janina also is a strong believer in astrology, and it is these sections that I felt slowed down this novel. Not sure they were necessary, at least not as lengthy. It does highlight the man and animal connection, and if one is not a vegetarian this book makes a strong arguement for being one.

Well, I made it out of Poland and though I'm glad to be done, I'm also glad that I read this very different book. It was unique for sure and provided a very interesting reading experience."

ARC from Edelweiss.
Profile Image for Hugh.
1,254 reviews49 followers
September 4, 2019
Now shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize 2019

This is the second book by Olga Tokarczuk to be published in translation by Fitzcarraldo Editions. The previous one Flights deservedly won this year's Man Booker International prize and is my favourite of all the books I have read this year. This one is very different but just as interesting - in some ways it is closer in spirit to Primeval and Other Times, the second Tokarczuk novel to be translated into English.

The translation is by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, who is English, so I was a little surprised by the spelling of the striking title. Those who know their William Blake well may recognise it as a quotation, and indeed Blake takes a major role in the book. The epigraphs which begin each chapter are all quotations from Blake's poems, and one character is translating Blake into Polish. At one point four attempts at translating a stanza are quoted, which must have been quite a challenge to translate back into English! In addition to the title quotation, which appears in a pivotal chapter near the end of the book, the word plough occurs twice in the book, both spelled the modern English way, once when describing a ploughed field and once for the constellation.

The narrator Janina Duszejko is a brilliant creation - a woman in her 60s who lives in an isolated hamlet near the Czech border which is almost deserted in winter. She acts as a caretaker for various summer residents and prefers animals to humans.

At the start of the book she is woken by her neighbour "Oddball" to investigate the death of another neighbour "Big Foot", a poacher who appears to have choked to death. This is the first of a number of deaths of those involved in hunting in the area, and the narrator ascribes them to the revenge of the animals, and her attempts to persuade the police to listen are largely ignored. She also believes that all of the deaths have been predicted by astrology, her other main interest.

The narrator has many other eccentricities, for example she hates her own name, particularly being addressed as Janina, and she prefers to name people for herself using nicknames unless she feels their names fit them especially well. Another quirk of the text is the quasi-Biblical usage of initial capital letters to stress particular improper nouns, for example her Ailments.

This description barely hints at how rich, allusive and atmospheric the story is, and the dark denouement is fitting.
Profile Image for Ruxandra (4fără15).
239 reviews4,436 followers
December 14, 2020
Și în acel moment mi-a venit o Ipoteză interesantă: Că, poate, stelele ne văd în același fel cum vedem noi Câinii. Noi, fiind mai raționali, uneori știm ce e mai bine pentru ei, îi ducem în lesă ca să nu se piardă, îi sterilizăm ca să nu se înmulțească inutil, îi ducem la veterinar ca să îi tratăm. Iar ei nu înțeleg de unde, de ce, în ce scop? Dar se lasă în voia noastră. Așa că poate și noi ar trebui să ne lăsăm în voia stelelor și, făcând asta, să ne stimulăm sensibilitatea umană.
Profile Image for Antonomasia.
972 reviews1,191 followers
May 12, 2019
Drive Your Plow has been described as one of Olga Tokarczuk's lighter novels, written between the experimental Flights and The Books of Jacob (as she said in this interview) - but this literary crime story, narrated by an eccentric animal-lover in her 60s, is still full of ideas.

Some things were easy to say about the book.

It has gorgeous descriptions of nature.

In this it's similar to the writing of Andrzej Stasiuk, another major contemporary Polish author who, like Olga Tokarczuk, left Warsaw to move to the Tatra mountain border regions. (Although Tokarczuk was born near the area where she now lives.) Both writers incorporate the rural landscape and the culture of the border area into their work. If you are an English-language reader with heritage in the hills of southern of Poland, you are rather spoilt for choice - it's not often that there is such an abundance of translated writing from such sparsely populated areas far from major cities.

Parts of Drive Your Plow contain intensely reflective and philosophical insights. Especially near the beginning, there's a paragraph worth highlighting and remembering on every page. These seem hint at why Tokarczuk's longer novel Flights won this year's International Booker, and why The Books of Jacob has been so eagerly awaited by English readers of complex fiction.

Some of the novel, especially after the early chapters, is more of a pacy literary-crime story, and less overtly philosophical. Which makes it a faster, lighter read overall than it may seem from the opening pages - however this may disappoint readers hoping for something more structurally experimental all the way through.

I'm grateful to Katia's review, which I read before the novel itself: it was invaluable in explaining that the narrator of Drive Your Plow is a riff on a 1990s East European trend for light, ironic novels featuring female detectives. I couldn't help but see this through the lens of the English cosy-mystery subgenre, as descended from Miss Marple - but undoubtedly there are differences in the Polish equivalent which an English reader is unaware of. (The queen of 20th century Polish crime writing, the late Joanna Chmielewska, has not been translated to English as yet.) Seeing Drive Your Plow as a satire on old-lady cosy-mysteries made me look forward to reading it - it seemed like an easy way into Tokarczuk's work, more so than Flights, which had been talked up as formidable, or the two other books of hers which I'd already owned for years, and which had become "ought to reads" at least as much as "want to reads".

And, as it turned out, I loved what Tokarczuk added to the cosy-mystery concept: twists, politics, and amplification of traits that popular culture associates with older women living alone but which it does not necessarily respect - including a 'mad cat lady' love of all animals, not just cats, (Pani Duszejko is actually a dog-owner) and a belief in superstitions and the supernatural. The narrator is not as safe and sweet as your typical cosy-mystery heroine. (There is also another feminist twist on crime fiction in general: in Drive Your Plow, the murder victims are middle-aged and older men - not the usual young women or children.)

In literary fiction, making astrology prominent in a narrative can get people's backs up, as it did with Eleanor Catton's 2013 Booker Winner The Luminaries. I mean, this isn't romance or commercial women's fiction, is it? On a personal level, I find horoscopes pernicious - they can be an insidious nuisance when combined with a phase of OCD-type issues. But when they are used as complex motifs in a literary novel, I think the snobbery they provoke is excessive. (Some have described this snobbery as sexist, although perhaps it is also sexist to align astrology so strongly with women.) I doubt that heavy use of, for example, Renaissance alchemy and its symbolism, in a work of fiction would irritate the same people to the same extent. Astrology is, similarly, a system of symbols and interactions - one well known in current pop culture. It has a place in fiction just like other features of pop culture disliked by some readers of 'serious' novels. I daresay Olga Tokarczuk thought about all this - as well as hardline Polish Catholic clergy's dislike of astrology - when she decided to put it in Drive Your Plow - although she wouldn't have known that the novel would be translated to English at a time when astrology is gaining in popularity among younger people.

Janina seemed so similar (although not, I hasten to add, in her most extreme actions) to a couple of women whose posts I'd read years ago in pet forums, that I wondered if the translator had read the same forums and taken inspiration from the writing style of these people. She shares other characteristics with them beyond narrative voice: a level of intelligence and expertise in her chosen interests which a lot of people wouldn't think a "mad cat lady" type would have; and anger and hardcore views about animal rights more usually associated with recently-converted young vegans. It turns out that a linguistic similarity, the capitalisation of certain nouns, such as Animals, was present in the original Polish novel (thank you GR Agnieszka). Later in the book, extended English prose quotations from William Blake (Janina's favourite author, of whom she makes unpublished Polish translations as a hobby) indicated that he was actually the inspiration behind her capitalisations. He was writing at a time when this capitalisation was more accepted, and not necessarily an indicator of personal eccentricity, corporate brand-speak, or of a story for children, as it is now. [Since reading Drive Your Plow, and this review, I've also read Henry Fielding's Tom Jones (1749), in the Penguin edition that preserves the original capitalisation, and where it is used for every Noun. Blake, writing decades later, was more selective about his use of caps.]

For all its positives, I also thought the book might be shooting itself in the foot while trying to do too many clever things in one go. The plot twist seemed to undermine the novel's causes: greater respect for women like Janina, for environmental and animal rights activism and opposition to conservative Catholicism.

This comes to an aspect of the book that I found tricky to write about; I revised draft reviews more than once in the hope of being both true to my own views, and more diplomatic about religion. In the end, the latter became easier. I realised that whilst, historically, the Christian doctrine of man's dominion over the animals can be seen as background to the current environmental situation, the exploitation of nature is nowadays criticised by some prominent clergy. Although this varies greatly by country and denomination, in general there are practices various branches of Christianity used to support, and which they no longer condone. Sweeping judgements about the entire religion are one of the ways in which the narrator goes too far. (Although to an anticlerical Pole reading Plow when it was first published ten years ago - and anticlericalism has a long tradition in Polish intellectual life* - these views may not have sounded unfairly sweeping. Many of these ecologically-minded Christian developments happened since the book's first publication, and in other countries. Traditional Polish Catholicism was, and is, very different church from the 2000s Church of England, with its fair-trade craft fairs; Anglicanism is a denomination for which it has been no great leap to speak out about the environment.)

Drive Your Plow is ambiguous about what is heroism and what is villainy. In this it has similarities to the Channel 4 series Utopia (with its plot relating to human overpopulation). By showing a character whom most would consider to be going too far, it prompts its audience, at any rate those who agree that there is an underlying issue, to consider where they think lines should be drawn, and what might be done in the real world. I felt that Drive Your Plow, through its ambiguous narrative tone, has potential to appeal to readers who disagree with Janina's views on animal rights as well as those broadly sympathetic - although in practice I am not sure if that has been borne out.

One could say that Tokarczuk was using the novel's ambiguity to protect herself given the far greater conservatism on animal rights issues in Poland, as compared with Britain. But in Poland the novel was not received as ambiguous. It apparently led to new debate about hunting, according to an interview with Tokarczuk earlier in 2018:
Hunting has become a hot political issue in Poland since the novel was published, but at the time few were thinking about it. “Some people said that once again Tokarczuk is an old crazy woman doing weird things, but then this big discussion started on the internet about what we can do about this very patriarchal, Catholic tradition.” (Thank you to Neil's review for prompting me to look at this interview.)

The pro-hunting clerical tradition represented by the priest in Drive Your Plow remains alive and well in Poland, and was influencing political policy seven years after the book's publication, in favour of logging at the once-revered ancient Białowieża Forest:

Sections of the Catholic and Orthodox churches have played a partisan role in the debate, with a passage from Genesis - “be fruitful, and multiply, replenish the earth and subdue it” - often used to justify increased logging.
One orthodox priest from Hajnówka, Leonid Szeszko, recently called for scientific, environmental and NGOs which opposed the logging plans to be banned.
Szyszko, who has championed the logging law, is a regular guest on the ultra-conservative Radio Maria, a Catholic radio station, and appears at conferences with a priest garbed in a forester’s green uniform.

Even if one reads with awareness of this, the prevailing attitudes detailed in the book seem old-fashioned and sometimes downright strange from a British perspective. I doubt it would be generally considered extreme or weird to make meticulous reports about infractions of hunting byelaws in the UK, even if some locals in some areas might not be receptive. And in UK cities it is pretty common to be vegetarian, like Janina, or vegan. Fur-farming (another sub-plot in Drive Your Plow) has been illegal in Britain for about 15 years now, and was already in decline before that. It was quite eye-opening to see how differently these things were evidently regarded by the majority in Poland. The hunt chaplain's sermon seemed almost medieval.

Nor, in contemporary Britain, would the established church be considered the primary upholder of 'man's dominion over the animals', as the Polish Catholic Church is in Drive Your Plow. The CofE is both less influential, and rather different in its prevailing politics. I wrote in a draft a couple of weeks before posting this review that it was inconceivable that former Archbishop of Canterbury and "national treasure" Rowan Williams, would utter anything like Father Rustle's sermon. Then, emphasising this, in the intervening fortnight, Williams spoke out in support of Extinction Rebellion, a new protest movement calling for more government action on climate change.

It wouldn't be correct, either, to take the book's view of the Polish Catholic church as globally characteristic of Catholicism, even if conservative Catholicism is influential in some countries. (Semantically, being against nature conservation always seems a very poor use of the word 'conservative'.) Famously, there was Pope Francis' 2015 encyclical Laudato si' - a follow-up to Polish Pope John Paul II's 1990 message 'The Ecological Crisis'. There are also smaller initiatives including a number of orders of nuns making active efforts to live sustainably.

In Plow, the conservative Catholicism of Father Rustle and the hunters needs to be set against the narrator as a folkloric/pagan symbol in herself. I had passing thoughts of the crone aspect of the Celtic neopagan triple goddess, but this was a Polish book so it didn't seem terribly relevant. Mimi's excellent review points out, among other things, that Janina is a Jungian crone, and makes a highly plausible connection with Baba Yaga. (I was kicking myself for not having thought of Baba Yaga.) Thus the narrator could also be connected loosely with Slavic neopaganism, a small movement which tends to be more openly critical of Christianity than is contemporary Western paganism.

(Incidentally, this is the first time since veganism became a major social trend that I've encountered a novel with a narrator who might be on the wavelength of hardcore vegans - i.e. the people who post confrontationally under Guardian cookery articles about meat, or who actively campaign. Actually, have I *ever*? There is surprisingly little about vegetarianism and veganism in novels, considering how common they are among urban creative people in the global North. Anyway, it would be interesting to hear what young vegans who were into astrology thought of Drive Your Plow: Janina is more in tune with their views than most fictional characters of her age - but is her ambiguity too discomfiting?)

In yet another of her interviews for the Guardian during 2018, Olga Tokarczuk mentioned that Leonora Carrington's The Hearing Trumpet was one of her favourite books, and an influence on Drive Your Plow. I read it not long before Plow - I'd been thinking of reading The Hearing Trumpet for years, and here was a good reason. The parallels between the two books are more evident now (a month after finishing Plow) than they did in close-up, while I was reading Tokarczuk's book. Transparently, both are about older female protagonists who are not taken seriously by many of the other characters - but they are centred and respected by their respective first-person narratives. They are not the kind of unreliable narrators that seem crafted to show up and trip up the protagonists, even if it is evident that the other characters don't see them as they see themselves. Both books are somewhat ambiguous and/or potentially shooting themselves in the foot: they kind of celebrate their heroines as interesting women who don't follow societal norms and who should be listened to more, alongside indicating why many people, even sympathetic people, might disregard their views to some extent. (Tokarczuk has also used ambiguity, or rather tact and subtlety in the allusive matter of Janina's ailments.)

But this ambiguity is also what makes these books *art* rather than merely socio-political arguments and campaigns. They don't provide the easy arguments one might like them to. As in The Hearing Trumpet, people with dementia may be imagining fascinating worlds inside their heads and they deserve to live in a friendly environment that meets their needs and to be taken seriously … but the dementia can also make it difficult to keep them anchored in the real world and to be sure what they say is real. Old ladies obsessed with animals may be intelligent people who've had interesting, repsonsible jobs, and be driven campaigners … but they might go too far (and occasionally, in more serious ways than in writing endless complaint letters in the proverbial green ink). And the more I think about the idea of Janina as Baba Yaga, the more coherent the novel's ambiguity seems.

I've owned other books by Olga Tokarczuk for several years, but this new one is the first of hers I've actually read. I was impressed - though given that Plow is one of her lighter efforts, and still contained so much, it did not make me much less daunted by the prospect of reading Flights, which had been steadily sweeping 2018's translation shortlists before it.

*e.g. Czesław Miłosz, History of Polish Literature, p.xiv, "a curious dichotomy ... a more or less permanent trait of Polish letters; namely an emotional moralism obviously nourished by a strong residue of Christian ethics has coexisted with anti-clericalism and an utter skepticism as to any dogmas (religious or political)".

(Read Sept-Oct 2018; reviewed Nov 2018; revised March 2019 for clarity & style , and to incorporate points from comments about Polish anticlericalism and Janina as crone.)
Profile Image for Jenna ❤ ❀  ❤.
765 reviews1,139 followers
June 28, 2020
~Most memorable main character in a book this year~

This was a different sort of novel with a different sort of heroine: A quirky, eccentric old lady who is not taken seriously by the authorities, even when a series of dead bodies turn up in their small village in Poland. She claims to have proof that it is the Animals (they're always capitalized when she speaks) taking revenge on the hunters, and backs up her claims by doing intricate astrological charts for the deceased, showing how their murders by Animals were governed and predicted by the stars.

I couldn't help but like Janina Duszejko, with her oddities and her passion for animals. She's not a saint and she's not "all there" at times but she draws you in with her fervor and eccentricity. The book is kind of a mystery but not so much. It's worth reading for the characters alone. It's a novel I didn't want to put down and it's a novel that makes you think. Duszejko's thoughts were at times spot on and at others far out there, but at all times compelling, pulling you in to her world. I highly recommend to those who enjoy a character driven novel.

"'Its Animals show the truth about a country,' [Duszejko] said. 'Its attitude toward Animals. If people behave brutally toward Animals, no form of democracy is ever going to help them, in fact nothing will at all."
Profile Image for William2.
735 reviews2,865 followers
January 22, 2020
If you’ve got a bit of Jane Goodall in you (as I do), try this off-beat thriller. The humor is subtle and the style beautifully stripped down. The writing exhibits a mastery of tone and narrative pacing that induced wonder and admiration in this reader.

Our storyteller is an elderly woman who, living alone in a rural area of Poland between Wrocław and the Czech border, is awakened in the dead of night by her neighbor, Oddball, to be told that another neighbor, Big Foot, is dead. The woman is eccentric, but intelligent and compassionate. She has long despised Big Foot for his arrogant behavior, and reckless despoliation of The Plateau, the isolated area in which they live, and brutal treatment of his dog. She has reported him to the police, who are a laughable bit of dysfunction unto themselves. Now he is dead. After the discovery Mrs. Duszejko goes about her business. She housesits for those who use their houses only as summer retreats, whereas she is on The Plateau year round, roughing the bitter winters alone when it can reach -20 F. Though her vocabulary is laudably rich, and her understanding of the natural sciences keen, she has an incongruous fondness for astrology, of which she says, “Nothing is capable of eluding this order.” (p. 56)

She believes that her Little Ladies, that is the local deer, for she is a stalwart lover of Animal life, have conspired with other local wildlife to murder a second person; she bases this speculation on the hundreds of deer prints left in the snow near the murder scene, which she happens upon. Between these two deaths—Big Foot’s has been ruled an accidental choking; he was eating poached deer at the time—Mrs. Duszejko, a retired teacher of English, teams up with a former student, Dizzy, to consult with him as he methodically translates the collected works of William Blake into Polish. She wishes she knew Animal script so she could warn the innocent creatures away from the hunters. Then again she wishes she could be aloof to the crimes committed around her, like those a short drive away in Auschwitz who hardly know what happened there during the war. She is alas not made of such incurious stuff. She sees suffering and despairs.

Soon when visiting the police commissioner she’s raving like a PETA member: ‘“You’ll say it’s just one Boar,” I continued, “But what about the deluge of butchered meat that falls on our cities day by day like never-ending, apocalyptic rain? This rain heralds slaughter, disease, collective madness, the obfuscation and contamination of the Mind. For no human heart is capable of bearing such pain. The whole, complex human psyche has evolved to prevent Man from understanding what he is really seeing. To stop the truth from reaching him by wrapping it in illusion, in idle chatter. The world is a prison of suffering, so constructed that in order to survive one must inflict pain on others....”’ (p. 106)

The killings go on. All the victims are hunters, middle aged men. Mrs. Duszejko continues to write letters to the police in which she interprets the horoscopes of the dead, citing relevant planetary conjunctions and the like. She gets no reply. There are many twists in Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead that this summary doesn’t touch on—and let’s not forget about the final kicker! This is the work of an extraordinarily talented writer, relatively new to English speakers, whom I look forward to reading more of. Hypnotic stuff.
Profile Image for Peter Boyle.
479 reviews583 followers
December 1, 2019
This unconventional tale is set in rural Poland, close to the Czech border. Janina is an middle-aged woman who looks after a bunch of holiday homes in the mountains. She is quite an eccentric individual, obsessed with astrology and preferring to call people by nicknames she invents. When her crotchety neighbour Big Foot dies unexpectedly one night, she helps her other neighbour Oddball dress the corpse. However in the weeks that follow, more bodies start turning up, and the police are mystified. Janina, a passionate animal rights advocate, believes that deer are responsible, claiming that they are seeking revenge on the cruel villagers who hunted them for sport. The locals think she's daft. But like it or not, she and her friends are drawn into solving the murders that have turned this small community on its head.

Given that Olga Tokarczuk won the Nobel Prize in 2018, I have to say I was expecting more from this novel. As a mystery, I don't think it succeeds - the culprit seemed quite obvious from early on in the story. And I found Janina a difficult character to warm to. I suppose it depends on your tolerance for whimsy but after a while her quirks became tiresome. Though I must admit that some of the book's philosophical musings got through to me, like when Janina's writer friend shares her outlook on life: "You know what, sometimes it seems to me we’re living in a world that we fabricate for ourselves. We decide what’s good and what isn’t, we draw maps of meanings for ourselves…And then we spend our whole lives struggling with what we have invented for ourselves. The problem is that each of us has our own version of it, so people find it hard to understand each other." However, it's not enough for me to recommend the novel as a whole. Looking at other reviews, I seem to be in the minority, but this one wasn't for me.
Profile Image for Katie.
261 reviews333 followers
May 10, 2020
When a victim is found with deerprints all around him, it seems entirely feasible that animals are committing murder.

I've finally found a murder mystery I could love. An elderly woman does battle with toxic patriarchal arrogance and self-entitlement, personified by the bloodthirsty hunting culture which prevails over her native area.

The novel is set in a bleak winter landscape in a remote part of Poland and narrated by a maverick elderly woman, a retired bridge engineer, who lives alone, studies astrology, has a passion for William Blake and sets herself the task of solving the series of murders that take place in the environs around her home. Dismissed by most of the locals as a cranky old lady the author does a fabulous job of making us feel how little agency and respect an elderly woman living alone has in modern society. Our narrator sets out to change that. It's a brilliantly written novel and addresses very creatively many of the pressing issues of our times, especially animal rights and the condescension directed at elderly women. It's a novel that occasionally edges off the rails in its zaniness but a thoroughly compelling and thought-provoking read.
Profile Image for Sam Quixote.
4,447 reviews12.8k followers
April 29, 2019
Hunters is dying in the Polish hills - animals getting revenge? Dat’s what totally not nutso old laydee Janina thinks!

This was my first and last time reading anything by award-winning (was the award for Giantest Poop Published That Year?) Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk - Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead’s premise kinda sounds like a supernatural murder mystery but it’s not. It’s basically just a screwball old lady muttering her disapproval of hunters and hunting in general while wittering on about the poetry of William Blake and astrology.

I feel like Tokarczuk can’t be so stupid that she doesn’t understand hunting isn’t some black and white moral question - that hunters are one-dimensionally evil, sadistic, macho, bloodthirsty thugs - so I’m giving her the benefit of the doubt that she writes them that way because her first person narrator is so unhinged.

Because hunting is a much more complex issue. Especially if you’re a meat eater - which 95%+ of Western society are - then you can’t complain about someone going out to get their own meat through skill and the tradition of hunting, rather than simply buying it conveniently processed and packaged from the shop. And it’s healthier to get your meat that way too! Alright I’m putting away the soapbox…

Even without the politics, this is a really crummy novel. The feeble plot inches along at a glacial pace while we have to sit through Janina’s tedious day-to-day activities: monologuing on and on about sodding Jupiter in Venus’ house and Sagittarius doing something with Gemini and who gives a fuck! What utter drivel astrology is. Then she’s with her boring hippy friends wanking over Blake’s poetry until all the reveals get crammed into the finale, none of which was satisfying or that interesting.

Don’t bother with this overrated rubbish - Drive Your Plow Over the Crap That Is This Novel!
Profile Image for Trudie.
519 reviews551 followers
March 17, 2020
Dear Olga.
Things are not working out between us. I have consulted my star charts and it reveals that my third house is blocked by a giant cosmic loom. While I can now weave cosmic carpets, it also unfortunately makes me immune to your charms. Perhaps if I had been reading this while Mercury was ascending or by the light of a gibbous moon things might have worked out better ?
For now I must find a way out of my third house and take Flight(s) to greener pastures.

P.S I tried, I really tried.
Profile Image for Candi.
606 reviews4,580 followers
March 14, 2023
After reading just two of her novels, I’m absolutely convinced that I have to snatch up everything Olga Tokarczuk has written. Her curious mind takes me places I want to be led, as in Flights. Her compassion and concern for the natural world, as in this book, is something I share with her. She makes me think of things in ways I hadn’t thought of before. For instance, in my wildest dreams, the foot has never been my favorite body part, yet I can get on board with the protagonist’s (Janina’s) rationalization. Of course, I realize she’s referring to more than just the physical appearance of the foot here.

“It is in the feet that all knowledge of Mankind lies hidden; the body sends them a weighty sense of who we really are and how we relate to the earth. It’s in the touch of the earth, at its point of contact with the body that the whole mystery is located—the fact that we’re built of elements of matter, while also being alien to it, separated from it.”

Janina (her given name, which she believes doesn’t suit her) is obsessed with astrology and horoscopes. She reads the stars, she looks at birth dates as signs, and she judges past and future events based on the positioning of the planets. I’ll admit I’ve never gone to such extremes, but I can easily put my belief into things like physics and matter and natural energy. It makes a lot of sense to me, much more than other things do these days. We’ve yet to uncover a whole lot of the mysteries of this earth.

“… the world is a great big net, it is a whole, where no single thing exists separately; every scrap of the world, every last tiny piece, is bound up with the rest by a complex Cosmos of correspondences, hard for the ordinary mind to penetrate.”

Most of the townspeople believe all of this to be the foolish mutterings of an old, mad woman - except for a small few who she bands together with. I loved this little group! When a series of suspicious deaths occur in her little Polish village, Janina becomes involved in the unraveling of the mystery with the support of those friends. This book, however, is far from a conventional mystery, and therefore won’t appeal universally. I devoured it. I’ve been thinking about it a lot since finishing it. I was originally going to rate this four stars, but so many of my highlighted notes were so thoroughly thought-provoking and the story was so well-paced for this reader, that I know it’s worthy of all the stars now.

“Sometimes I feel as if we’re living inside a tomb, a large, spacious one for lots of people. I looked at the world wreathed in gray Murk, cold and nasty. The prison is not outside, but inside each of us. Perhaps we simply don’t know how to live without it.”

“… despite the semblance of cheerfulness that people naively and ingenuously ascribe to me, I see everything as if in a dark mirror, as if through smoked glass. I view the world in the same way as others look at the Sun in eclipse.”

“My life’s harvest is not the building material for anything, neither in my time, now, nor in any other, never. But why should we have to be useful and for what reason? Who divided the world into useless and useful, and by what right?”

Just one more, in case you may are beginning to think this novel is all doom and gloom. Janina can be wonderfully cheeky at times:

“I don’t like those high, powerful cars, made with war in mind, rather than walks in the lap of nature. Their large wheels churn up the ruts in the dirt roads and damage the footpaths. Their mighty engines make a lot of noise and produce exhaust fumes. I am convinced that their owners have small dicks and compensate for this deficiency by having large cars.”
Profile Image for Libby.
575 reviews157 followers
February 14, 2022
Olga Tokarczuk’s novel is many-layered. There’s the obvious layer in which Janina Dusezjkl’s neighbor and community hunters are dying. In this very obvious layer, Dusezjkl is an older woman, who lives on the outside of community, having a few friends that are also considered outsiders, Oddball, Dizzy, and Good News. She frequently refers to astrology and has an intense bond with animals. She decries what she considers the waste of animal life through hunting.

“The nastiest criminal has a soul, but not you, beautiful Deer, nor you, Boar, nor you, wild Goose, nor you, Pig, nor you, Dog.”

For Dusezjkl, the life of an animal, its motives, and energies are pure. It is the human, especially the hunter, who lives a suspect life with questionable motives.

Another layer of the novel is its connection to the work of William Blake. Dusezjkl and her friend Dizzy spend time translating the work of Blake. A painter and poet from the Romantic era, William Blake was considered by many to be mad and it was only after his death that his work became known for its genius. The title of the novel comes from one of Blake’s poems, ‘Proverbs of Hell.’

“In seed time learn, in harvest teach, in winter enjoy. Drive your cart and your plow over the bones of the dead. The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom. Prudence is a rich ugly old maid courted by Incapacity.”

If you think the poem sounds mysterious and enigmatic, I agree. It is only through reading an analysis that I learned that Blake intended his proverbs to provoke and encourage the questioning of accepted norms. Honoring the poles of opposition, the forces of contrarianism were for Blake, the means of progress.

Another layer of the novel has to do with the theme of usefulness. What things and people do we cast aside when we feel they are no longer useful? One of her friends in the novel asks her, “What have you done in life?” And we’re reminded that we esteem people for where they’ve gone to school or what their career is or how big and shiny their home is. Perhaps we should challenge those ideas and learn some philosophy from a madwoman.

As more murders occur, Dusezjkl tells the police that animals are involved in seeking revenge against the hunters. Is she mad? Or is she genius? In order to fully absorb the novel, it helps to consider both. With delightfully lucid prose, Tokarezuk delineates an unforgettable protagonist. This is such an elegant maze of a book with more pathways to explore than I could fathom. Deliciously provocative.
Profile Image for Jibran.
224 reviews649 followers
October 31, 2019
For every thing that lives is Holy.

I’ve thought long and hard what to make of the lead protagonist, one Janina Duszejko, an eccentric woman on the cusp of old age living in an isolated hamlet surrounded by mountains and forests along the Polish-Czech border; a woman whose love for animals surpasses everything she might feel for her fellow human beings, and who believes that the apparently defenceless animals possess the means and the intelligence to take revenge on the humans who inflict cruelty and death upon them for sports.

Janina may be suffering from many “Ailments” but she is sturdy, mobile, and full of wit. She loves Blake, the champion of animal rights and nature (every chapter starts with an epigram of Blake’s verses) and believes in an astrological cosmic order in spite of being godless (well, you can only be godless if God exists, she’d say). But there’s one thing that sets her apart from everyone around her: She is an animal rights extremist without realising it, which is a common characteristic of all kinds of extremists!

This novel packs a lot. It is easy to dismiss it as the ravings of a crazy old woman holding up a nasty worldview, a true Oddball if there was one, which is something the author foresaw and afforded preemptive defence by arguing that that’s because society does not respect old women and take seriously anything they have to say. At another point she defends her contrasting lack of sympathy for humans who kill animals by holding up the idea of the sanctity of all life, though not very convincingly.

Antonomasia’s review was key to understanding the context of the politics of the novel, in particular the pact between hunting fraternities and the Catholic Church in Poland which has enabled and protected "ethical hunting" as a cultural practice having religious sanction. The sermon of Father what-was-his-name is modeled on actual speeches of holy men.

That said, I still feel the novel takes a very black-and-white approach in how it deals with hard questions. I wasn’t looking for a counter-argument but a more nuanced narrative that would seek out something more profound, more philosophical, than a straight-up denunciation of hunters and, by extended logic, everyone involved in the preparation and consumption of meat, as evil people.

But there is an argument to be made that the author has designed Janina to uncover the full extent of moral double standards, and the sheer hypocrisy of the political as well as religious elite when it comes to these issues and, in doing so, has compelled us to ask difficult questions about the nature of hunting vs poaching or even ethical slaughtering, about the exploitation of nature for commercial greed, about the universal or selective sanctity of life - and about being the only crazy person among all the sane people. Or is it the other way round?

So who would you support in a world where innocent animals had the will and the brains to take revenge against the sapiens who kill them without a shred of remorse? Don't answer if you're a human, Janina would say!

Make of that what you will.

One has to tell people what to think. There's no alternative. Otherwise someone else will do it

October '19
Profile Image for Debbie W..
706 reviews452 followers
February 9, 2021
Initially I pictured this story taking place over a century ago, so I was thrown for a loop when I realized that the setting is modern day.

"Pros" about this story:
1. A character-driven mystery! Janina Duszejko, the protagonist, comes off sounding like an eccentric old crackpot to the villagers (and probably to some readers), but I found her rather likeable! I loved her subtle sense-of-humor, and I had a personal affinity for her experiences as an older person. Her thoughts that being a teacher is a mental attitude touched my heart;
2. Started off, interestingly, with a mysterious death. I enjoyed how Janina and her friends participated in detective work to solve the murders that followed; and,
3. The audiobook narrator, Antonia Lloyd-Jones, had a pleasing voice. She read steadily and enunciated clearly, exactly how I would imagine the main character to sound.

"Cons" about this story:
1. People interested in astrology may like this book, but sometimes Janina would prattle on and on and on about this topic that I would lose my focus and would have to rewind to get this gist of what was being said.

Overall, a "Goodread"! You might want to give it a try!
Profile Image for Henk.
820 reviews
February 17, 2023
Entertaining, although the central murder mystery has a very clear resolution from early on in the book. The love of animals and morality of our usage of them is well executed, as is the way we as society don’t take old people serious.
’You know what, sometimes it seems to me we’re living in a world that we fabricate for ourselves. We decide what’s good and what isn’t, we draw maps of meanings for ourselves… And then we spend our whole lives struggling with what we have invented for ourselves. The problem is that each of us has our own version of it, so people find it hard to understand each other.’

Janina Duszjeko, an old lady living in a nearly abandoned village at the Czech border, fond of astrology, nicknames and animals, is asked to dress her dead neighbour. So begins Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Nobel prize winner Olga Tokarczuk.

Janina, who adamantly doesn't want to be called that way and also thinks of nicknames for all those around her, is really a character. We follow her reflections on her small village, with more and more people dead. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde comes to mind during reading, and the work of William Blake recurs frequently. Not the the book is unoriginal; I can for instance not recall a more horrid death than being invaded by bugs due to pheromones.

In the end I loved the prose, and the ridiculously detailed astrological mumbo jumbo, but the novel just didn't fully hit the heart for me, hence 3.5 stars rounded down but a plethora of strong quotes:

I’d started to put on my boots, but that terrible grey morning alarmed me. Sometimes I feel as if we’re living inside a tomb, a large, spacious one for lots of people. I looked at the world wreathed in grey Murk, cold and nasty. The prison is not outside, but inside each of us. Perhaps we simply don’t know how to live without it.

As I gazed at the black-and-white landscape of the Plateau I realized that sorrow is an important word for defining the world. It lies at the foundations of everything, it is the fifth element, the quintessence.

If I hadn’t known her so well, I’m sure I would have read her books. But as I did know her, I was afraid to open them. What if I found myself described in them in a way that I couldn’t fathom? Or my favourite places, which for her are something completely different from what they are to me? In a way, people like her, those who wield a pen, can be dangerous. At once a suspicion of fakery springs to mind – that such a Person is not him or herself, but an eye that’s constantly watching, and whatever it sees it changes into sentences; in the process it strips reality of its most essential quality – its inexpressibility.

Sometimes it’s as if I’m composed of nothing but symptoms of illness, I am a phantom built out of pain.

She had such a deep tan that she looked as if she’d just been removed from the barbecue.

At the same time I wish to appeal to the gentlemen of the Police not to shy away from the idea that the perpetrators of the above-mentioned tragic incidents could be Animals. I have prepared some information that casts a little light on these matters, for it is a long time since we have had cases of crimes committed by these creatures.

I must start with the Bible, in which it is clearly stated that if an Ox kills a woman or a man, it should be stoned to death. Saint Bernard excommunicated a swarm of Bees, whose buzzing prevented him from working. Bees also had to answer for the death of a Man from the city of Worms in the year 846. The local parliament condemned them to death by suffocation. In 1394 in France some Pigs killed and ate a child. The Sow was sentenced to hang, but her six children were spared, taking their young age into consideration. In 1639 in France, a court in Dijon sentenced a Horse for killing a Man. There have been cases not only of Murder, but also of crimes against nature. Thus in Basel in 1471 there was a lawsuit against a Hen, which laid strangely coloured eggs. It was condemned to death by burning, for being in cahoots with the devil. Here I must add my own comment, that intellectual limitation and human cruelty know no bounds.

In 1659 in Italy the owners of vineyards destroyed by Caterpillars submitted to them a written summons to court. Pieces of paper with the wording of the summons were nailed to trees in the area, so the Caterpillars might become acquainted with the indictment.
In citing these recognized historical facts, I demand that my Suppositions and Conjectures be given serious consideration. They demonstrate that similar thinking has occurred in European jurisdiction before, and that they can be taken as a precedent.
Profile Image for Agnieszka.
258 reviews918 followers
March 24, 2019

For every thing that lives is Holy.

The action of the novel, the title could be translated as a quote from Blake’s Drive Your Plough over the Bones of the Dead, takes place in a remote mountain settlement in the beautiful Kotlina Kłodzka. That quiet, tranquil location suddenly is a place of murders of local hunters, with only animals’ tracks left on the crime scene. Revange of the game?

This one was promoted as an ecological and moral thriller with strong feministic and anarchic accents. But you can read it as well as a satire on provinionalism and insular way of thinking, as a critique of hipocrysy of clergy and local policymakers, accusation of upstart holidaymakers who think that nature is only for their pleasure, opposition to maltreating the old and weak, objection to misogyny and finally call for justice and mercy for all living creatures and respect for the nature world.

Look at this scene. It’s called display of trophies of the hunt. Hunters would say it means respect and tribute for animals but I find it only ridiculous and barbaric.

Drive Your Plough over the Bones of the Dead has some unconventional protagonists with one particularly standing out from the crowd. Janina Duszejko is a bit eccentric not to say quirky old lady. She used to be an engineer but now after retiring looks after houses of absent neighbours, teaches English and translates William Blake's poetry, by the way trying to apply his views to a modern way of living. She also is a homebred astrologist and an ardent advocate of animals.

In my estimation it is not the best Tokarczuk’s novel but for sure it didn’t waste my time either. It has distinctive for her elements of magical realism, shows the beauty of the particular region in southern Poland, near Czech border, and its mountainous landscape, here in the wintry scenery and windy weather. Every chapter starts with quote from Blake what, in the long run, resulted in immersing myself in his strange, visionary world.

Even if you pay not too much attention to animals and their rights or to nature in general you still have something to ponder about. The message Tokarczuk delivers here is rather clear though the way she manages it it’s not always satisfying to me. Here and there strikes me as being unbelievable, at times it's guilty of naivety but nonetheless covers some important issues and rises even more questions. It makes us think of distinction between poaching and hunting, is that really any ?, of mindless acts against nature, of violence and cruelty towards animals and our double moral standards. Why do we find it unacceptable to tar suffering of people and animals with the same brush? Aren't we all the same under the skin? Why people, especially older women are so often object of dismissive remarks when they act on behalf of animals and their rights? Why do we think that hunting is wrong but a cutlet on our plate rarely makes us think about living creature once it was? And what do you think about slaughterhouse, poultry farm, or fox one? And when you answered yourself to these questions and agreed that killing animals is wrong thing what about slaying the evildoers, then?

March 2, 2022
This book was an oddity, but it hit a few of the right notes for me. I had never heard of Olga Tokarczuk until I saw this book knocking about on goodreads, and I bought it purely because of the title. Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead is a unique title, and made me immediately want it.

I actually liked Janina, the main character, and it was interesting that the story went on inside her head, but as the plot thickened, it became somewhat tiresome, and I craved things from another perspective. It was an intriguing descent into madness, but it became rather bland in parts, where I completely saw what was coming.

There were some notable parts in the book that made me smile, especially the comments Janina made about men and testosterone. I thought that was a marvellously written paragraph, so I'll share it again:

"He was a man of very few words, and as it was impossible to talk, one had to keep silent. It’s hard work talking to some people, most often males. I have a Theory about it. With age, many men come down with testosterone autism, the symptoms of which are a gradual decline in social intelligence and capacity for interpersonal communication, 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.”

This was a good book, with an interesting premise, but I can't say that it totally won me over. There was an important spark missing, which prevented me from fully investing in it.
Profile Image for Emily B.
424 reviews416 followers
May 14, 2021
The writing in this novel was both hypnotic and poetic. So much so that whenever astrology was mentioned I found myself very relaxed, almost to a frisson or asmr state.

When reading I often think about the writer, I imagine them trying to write the character’s narrative and become the character. However in this case I didn’t so much. The way in which the protagonist viewed the world was eccentric but also charming, while the narrative felt natural and authentic.

When reading it felt like a 4 star but on reflection it feels like it could be a 5 star. So 4.5 stars rounded down
Profile Image for ·Karen·.
614 reviews757 followers
March 2, 2019
Janina= gift of god, god's grace.
No wonder Mrs Duszejko rejects her given name as unsuitable.
One has to tell people what to think. There's no alternative. Otherwise someone else will do it.

Think about that. As we are instructed in the first chapter's heading: NOW PAY ATTENTION.
See? there is an alternative. Someone else will do it.
There's more, so much more (obviously!), no I don't just mean more words, more pages, I mean more that made me gurgle with laughter and delight.
He came to me in the Night and squatted by my bed. I wasn't asleep.
'Are you asleep?' he asked.
'Are you religious?' I had to put the question.
'Yes' he replied proudly. 'I'm an atheist.'

These writers:
In a way, people like her, those who wield a pen, can be dangerous. At once a suspicion of fakery springs to mind -

And the lady writer, the Grey Lady (she who looked like a survivor from Pompeii), she has such insight and wisdom, yes. Such an intuitive intelligence. She cannot stay in this awful place, with all these murders going on. She comes to tell Mrs Duszejko that she is selling her house.
'It's impossible to live in a place where things like that happen. Those dreadful murders have brought various minor deceptions and improprieties to light. It turns out I have been living among monsters,' she said fretfully. 'You are the only honest person in the whole place.'

What's that you say? You don't see why that's funny?
Oh no, I'm not going to tell you. You will just have to read this to find out.

I would like to express my admiration for the absolutely bravura performance of Antonia Lloyd-Jones. At one point Mrs Duszejko and her friend Dizzy are translating a verse of Blake's poetry into Polish. So they try out several different versions, all of which are translated for us into English, from the Polish, which was a translation from the English. A daunting task if ever there was one, but wonderfully resolved.
Profile Image for Gumble's Yard - Golden Reviewer.
1,740 reviews1,188 followers
November 9, 2021
Now shortlisted for the 2020 International Dublin Literary Award.

I am hoping this is not the book cited for her Nobel Prize win.

Why is it that old women … women of your age are so concerned about animals? Aren’t there any people left to take care of?

I could sense his disgust as he ... cast negative judgement on my taste

This book is a noir style mystery novel written by the author of the Man Booker International winning Flights – and at first the clear mystery that the reader is faced with is how the author of such a complex, lengthy, erudite and Sebaldesque book can for their next book produce a short, sub-Nesbo genre book. perhaps only followed by the sub-mystery of its own MBI longlisting.

The author solves the mystery in this Guardian article (https://www.theguardian.com/books/201...) where her explanation is disarming, involving a two-book deal and a handy fashion for detective stories – although I was a little disappointed to be an unwilling and unwitting victim.

I do not normally read much crime fiction – and the inclusion of “Snap” on the Booker list did not encourage me in that direction. However as part of reading the shortlist for the Guardian 2018 Not The Booker prize I recently read Dark Pines by Will Dean – a Nordic-noir crime book (by a UK author living in Sweden).

And I was very struck by the similarities between the two books: set in an isolated and wooded part of the country; a main character with a number of quirks; an isolated hamlet with a cast of eccentrics; the area dominated by a male hunting fraternity, who it is increasingly clear have links to all of the main players in the area including business men and the police; a shadowy brothel; a series of grisly murders with an underlying link – and all of men associated with the hunting establishment; an eventual motive fuelled by a twisted sense of justice not recognised by the conventional legal system.

Even though (or should that be because) “Dark Pines” was pure Genre fiction – I found it far more enjoyable and much better written.

My views on the writing of this book were not aided by things such as a Middle Eastern doctor called Ali who cannot speak great Polish and says “I’ll soon see what’s wailing you”; or a trite series of observations on male drivers of large cars and what they might be compensating for. These could be assigned to the quirky narrator - but I feel that the author identifies with her character.

And my key issue with this book was that I could not empathise with the main character at all – I found myself identifying more with those around her, which given my negative views on hunting, is really quite a feat on the author’s behalf.

I think there were two main reasons for this: the character’s preference for animals over humans and her obsession with astrology: the first made me found the book at best morally ambiguous; the second lead to me frequently skipping chunks of text.

The author calls her books like “Flights” constellation novels – to quote from the Guardian article just as the ancients looked at stars in the sky and found ways to group them and then to relate them to the shapes of creatures or figures, so what she calls her “constellation novels” throw stories, essays and sketches into orbit, allowing the reader’s imagination to form them into meaningful shapes.

I hope that the author sticks to constellations as a way of shaping novels structure rather than content in the future.

Rating rounded up due to the author's general (although far from uniform) excellence in "Flights".
Profile Image for Doug.
1,931 reviews667 followers
February 5, 2022
Update: Just to state that I have now seen the film version mentioned below and it is INCREDIBLE!! Beautifully adapted, directed, acted and the cinematography is exquisite.

What an unexpected delight - I was wary of the most recent Nobel Prize winner, as I had heard how difficult Flights was, so thought this shorter book might be a better introduction to her oeuvre. But for sure I wasn't expecting this bleak, but very clever take on the murder mystery, complete with the most unreliable of narrators. There is really so much going on beneath the surface story, and although most of the Blake-ian imagery went over my head, and I didn't cotton much to all the malarkey about astrology, I definitely could empathize with Janina's detestation of the cruel hunters, being both an animal rights advocate and vegetarian myself. It might seem damning with faint praise, but I also think this could make for a very satisfying film adaptation by some adventurous director.

PS... my lovely GR friend Neil informed me that there is indeed a film version by no less auspicious a director than the gr8 Agnieszka Holland (see thread below), with the not so appetizing title 'Spoor'. The trailer looks incredible though: https://www.amazon.com/gp/video/detai....
Profile Image for Lena.
171 reviews65 followers
January 31, 2023
The story of a weird old lady obsessed with astrology and animal rights that turned into a thriller about a serial killer. Author definitely knows how to surprise her readers... She also managed to put a great deal of crucial topics in this tiny novel without overwhelming the plot. And to create cute laughable characters. So you can say that as any good book this one has no genre: it's about everything and nothing in particular.
Profile Image for Elle.
584 reviews1,286 followers
September 10, 2020
Okay, Olga Tokarczuk. I get it now. I had no idea what type of book would be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, but this left quite the impression. All I can say is that this novel had maybe the best payoff for any book I remember reading.

I absolutely adore (Janina) Duszejko. Her character just became more and more likable to me as the story went on. With every new idiosyncrasy revealed, I was increasingly enamored. By the end there was really nothing that she could do which would turn me off of her. Along with her band of misfits, whom are lovingly given nicknames like Oddball, Dizzy and Good News, I can guarantee that even if you don’t take to her personally, that this is a collection of characters unlike any you’ve encountered before.

I can’t go too much into the plot. It’s just too hard to explain without giving things away, but I can say it all begins with the sudden death of Ms. Duszejko’s neighbor. She also provides the reader with poignant observations and biting humor, especially in regard to her fellow man. She’s an older woman, unmarried and living alone, who believes heavily in astrology and is an unabashed vegetarian that has no problem making her opinion known. So clearly she’s going to ruffle a few feathers, especially with the predictably dull type of patriarchal bullshit that inhabits many rural, conservative towns.

If there’s one book I can implore you to finish, even if it seems like you’re going nowhere fast slowly, it would be this one. I promise, it’s worth it. This won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but I just can not emphasize enough how much I appreciated this novel. Basically I’m about to go scour the internet for the Polish movie version (Spoor) and hopefully be able to watch it with subtitles.

And if you’re reading this in the future, an English translation of Tokarczuk‘s ‘masterwork’ is in the works. It’s The Books of Jacob and is slated for 2021. You’re welcome.
Profile Image for Barbara.
267 reviews204 followers
January 28, 2021
"Have you lost your minds? Or your hearts? Have you still got hearts?"

Are thoughts that might be called insane by some, often the saner or more ethical, and what is accepted as sane thinking, sometimes insanity?

Mrs. D. ( I dare not call her Janina) is an older woman of many dimensions. Living in an area outside a small Polish village she seems content with her life, except for her abhorrence of hunting and its disregard for life. She is a caretaker of local homes, nurturer of children and plants, and most importantly, animals. She loves crossing over; going to the nearby Czech Republic, building bridges, and yes, carrying a passion too far. "Sometimes when a Person feels Anger everything seems simple and obvious. Anger puts things in order and shows you the world in a nutshell; Anger restores the gift of Clarity of Vision, which it's hard to attain in any other state". Is Mrs. D. quirky? Yes. Is she extreme? Yes. Is she crazy? I don't think so.

I absolutely loved this book and loved Mrs. D.. Although described as a murder mystery, to me this is much more a character study; a character study exquisitely developed. Olga Tokarczuk is a phenomenal writer. I will be reading every word she has written or will write in the future. This is definitely one of the best books I have read in a long time.

"Only a piece of machinery could possibly carry all the world's pain. Only a machine, simple, effective and just. But if everything were to happen mechanically, our prayers wouldn't be needed."

"Sorrow is an important word for defining the world. It lies at the foundations of everything, it is the 5th element, the quintessence."
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