Neil's Reviews > Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead

Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk
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really liked it
bookshelves: sub-fitzcarraldo, 2018, 2019-mbi

It’s a strange story, like a bad dream, isn’t it?

After about 30 pages of this book, I was talking to my son about it and I told him it felt to me very much like a Coen brothers movie (he is an avid reader and has a degree in film studies so books and movies often crop up when we talk): it is darkly comic but also sad, it skips around genres (especially comedy, thriller and noir - a jumble of genres), it has memorably eccentric characters and it has a plot that is almost but not quite something that could actually happen. It is this slight step sideways from reality that gives the book its strange atmosphere and, for me, its quirky appeal. If you’ve watched Fargo, my memory of that movie (I haven’t watched it for several years) has a similar atmosphere. Some of the writing is very cinematic and leaves you with vivid mental images exactly like you have been watching a movie:

I put my arms around her, and there we stood together - a fake Wolf and a small woman in a pool of light from the firehouse window. The shadows of the dancers flew across us.

I should perhaps explain that our narrator is, at this point, at a fancy dress party wearing a wolf costume. At 30 pages, I was comparing this to a movie. At about the halfway point, I discovered it IS a movie. The movie version is called Spoor and was controversial in its home country (…it was denounced by a Polish news agency as “a deeply anti-Christian [work] that promoted eco-terrorism” - The Guardian) but went on to win awards. I’d like to watch it, if only to see it it turns out Coen-brothers-like as I felt when reading the book.

Our narrator is Janina Duszejko, although she hates to be called that name and, in general, does not like people to have official names and other characters are referred to by the names she has given them based on what comes to mind when she first meets them. This is just one of her eccentricities. The story begins when she and Oddball discover the body of Big Foot who has apparently choked on a bone. This triggers a series of deaths in the community which our narrator “investigates”, often via her other key interest in astrology which she is convinced points towards animals being the murderers. It’s possibly not a surprise that the police do not take her letters seriously, although this might be more an indication of my personal view of astrology.

Whilst I might not place much (any) value on astrology, I am a very keen nature watcher and I found the nature notes in the book a fascinating accompaniment to the story. I don’t go into novels expecting to learn new things about the natural world, but I did find out new things as I read this. I did not know, for example, that fieldfares defend themselves against predators by flying above them and defecating on them. Our narrator (she doesn’t like her name, so I am not using it) prefers animals to humans. At first, it therefore seems odd that she thinks the animals are the murderers, but she isn’t thinking of it as murder when she blames them, but more as revenge for hunting that has taken so many of their species. The animal rights side to the story marked the author as, like her narrator, a crazy old woman in the eyes of many, but hunting has since become a big issue in Poland. The Guardian interview with the author points out:

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.”

As someone in the book says

’We have a view of the world, but Animals have a sense of the world, do you see’

And so we find ourselves in a darkly humorous, rather bizarre world where our narrator dreams of her mother and grandmother in her boiler room, struggles with her Ailments (various words are capitalised like this, a bit like Winnie-the-Pooh only, obviously, rather different!), finds dead bodies, attends fancy dress parties and various other strange activities. I think it is best not to try to make logical sense of the narrative but to accept what it throws at you. In this sense, the book is slightly similar to the author’s Man Booker International prize winning Flights, although that was far more disjointed. Both come from a different story-telling tradition to the one we are accustomed to in Western Europe. From the same Guardian interview:

The literature of central Europe is very different from that of the west, she (Tokarczuk) explains. “The first thing is that we don’t trust reality as much as you do. Reading English novels I always adore the ability to write without fear about inner psychological things that are so delicate. In such a form you can develop a story in a very linear way, but we don’t have this patience. We feel that in every moment something must be wrong because our own story wasn’t linear. Another difference is that you are rooted in psychoanalysis while we’re still thinking in a mythical, religious way.”

Having written a (too) long review, I will finish by saying this quote just goes to show that it difficult for Western European readers to get to grips with this book. All I can say is that I really enjoyed reading it despite having a very different world view to both the narrator and the author. It’s not as mind-blowingly, disorientatingly brilliant as Flights, but is a fascinating read. I guess tracking down the movie in English is not going to be easy, though.
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Reading Progress

August 21, 2018 – Shelved
September 6, 2018 – Started Reading
September 10, 2018 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-31 of 31 (31 new)

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message 1: by Laura (new) - added it

Laura First of all the review is not too long - because everything you is interesting. 2 - I love Cohen brothers movies. 3 - I often feel the difference between British and American view points, and interestingly I just started abook based on a UK/Egyptian woman's experience, and sighed with relief after an awful American book experience. There are very deep psychological differences in people, and their cultures. Poland with its strong religious background will probably connect more with me than US.
4 Animal hunting - lot of shit here in Cyprus about that.
5 gorgeous opening quote - fake Wolf and a small woman - that image is so true for so many men!
6 love the idea, of a non-investigator investigator.
It's hitting all the right nerves. Fabulous review. Efcharisto Poli - thank you.

Neil Thanks, Laura

Paul Fulcher I was worried when I read the fieldfares bit whether it would get the Neil seal of approval - glad to see it did! The DVD is very easy to track down by the way....

Neil Thanks - I was just about to have a look on Amazon - I think I may have to order that one.

Paul Fulcher I just have actually - to see if I appreciate it more.

Although I still don't buy the explanation for my lack of appreciation that it's different to Western literature. The country whose literature I just do not get at all is the US; Eastern Europe is pretty much my comfort zone.

Neil Fair enough. It makes sense to me as my focus is pretty much Western Europe.

Neil My DVD order now placed - we can compare notes on the movie, too!

Paul Fulcher I didn't dislike it as much as Gumble - it would be average for the Booker this year for example (although that is damning with faint praise) - and perhaps we were also both put off by the comment to the Guardian where she seemed to admit (albeit it isn't a direct quote) that it was a rather casual effort.

Neil Yes, I'm not sure I interpreted that remark quite so negatively. It felt more self-deprecating to me rather than something Moshfegh would say.

Gumble's Yard I think in the context of the interview that the comment re the difference to English literature refers more to her constellation novels like Flights (hence the non linear comments).

But in any event I don’t even think her contrast is correct. Mythical, non linear books in English - how about Everything Under for example just picking one from the Booker list. The contrast does apply to say Normal People which is much more like she describes.

And like I am sure pretty well everyone in South England I have Polish friends, Polish colleagues and shops in my town that sell Polish food. It seems to me a culture close to us, compared even to say other Eastern European countries whose literature that I am sure most English readers of translated fiction have read (say Czech or Russian).

message 11: by Neil (new) - rated it 4 stars

Neil Fair comment, although I thought the quote was more in context of an overview of her output. And Everything Under is new and not a typical Western European book. But you are probably right. I saw the comments on Hugh’s review that suggested being Polish would be a help with this book.

Gumble's Yard I am sure it does. Most good literature I think can only be properly appreciated if you come from the country where it was written, and especially difficult to fully appreciate if you don’t speak the language.

message 13: by Kristian (new)

Kristian I should hate to think that's the case, as I've pretty much turned my back on any literature written in my native language at this point.

message 14: by Neil (new) - rated it 4 stars

Neil I have watched the movie now. It is far more overtly political than the book, so I can understand why it was controversial in Poland when it was released.

message 15: by Paul (new) - rated it 3 stars

Paul Fulcher I have also watched the film - and agreed.

And the Blake feels very diminished and peripheral (it's even lost from the title)- indeed really feels it is just there to tick a box.

Indeed generally, the film has that trait of many movie adaptations of books - changing some of the story and characters quite fundamentally (e.g. the whole Good News story line in the film) yet retaining some quite micro scenes from the book.

message 16: by Neil (new) - rated it 4 stars

Neil Ah, good. I was trying not to say too much in case you hadn't got to watching it!

Agree about the Blake - and I noticed the "plough" rather than "plow" right at the end. It seemed they used both the Blake and the insect stuff mostly to establish two key relationships. And the Good News story was very different.

But, I did like all the off screen bird noises and spent several scenes listening to which birds were calling instead of what words were being said. Fortunately, it being Polish with subtitles, I could read the words and listen to the birds at the same time. I wasn't quite convinced about the bird song in the night, other than the tawny owl, of course, but I did like the addition of a woodpecker.

I thought you might have a similar reaction as you did to The Overstory? That book and this film would make a good pair - I must ask Richard Powers if he's seen/read this when I go to his reading in a couple of weeks.

message 17: by Hugh (new) - rated it 4 stars

Hugh Thanks Neil - I must have missed this one when you posted it (my feeds are just getting too busy). I am glad you enjoyed it - I was starting to doubt my judgment after Gumble's dismissal of it. Re the spelling - I wonder how late the decision to use Blake's plow was, because as you can see from this page, they did produce a cover with PLOUGH on it (in fact I used my librarian status to change the title here to match the book).

message 18: by Neil (new) - rated it 4 stars

Neil Can you use your librarian status to add a page count for The Remainder?

message 19: by Hugh (last edited Sep 14, 2018 01:00AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Hugh Neil wrote: "Can you use your librarian status to add a page count for The Remainder?" Done. The 240 comes from Amazon, and they are not always accurate!

message 20: by Neil (new) - rated it 4 stars

Neil Very true! It is 193.

message 21: by Hugh (new) - rated it 4 stars

Hugh In that case I'll edit it again!

message 22: by Neil (new) - rated it 4 stars

Neil :-)

message 23: by Paul (new) - rated it 3 stars

Paul Fulcher Wondering whether to change the cover picture to the correct one or leave it there for posterity.

message 24: by Hugh (new) - rated it 4 stars

Hugh Paul wrote: "Wondering whether to change the cover picture to the correct one or leave it there for posterity."
I quite like the idea of leaving it, because it is interesting that it was created that way!

message 25: by Paul (new) - rated it 3 stars

Paul Fulcher agreed

message 26: by Neil (new) - rated it 4 stars

Neil And then it matches the movie, at least!

message 27: by s.penkevich (new)

s.penkevich Love this review.

message 28: by Neil (new) - rated it 4 stars

Neil Thank you

Antonomasia Thank you for this review! I'd been aiming not to read any more reviews of this book before writing about it myself, but for about 3 weeks I've been trying to work out how to review it in a way that's both diplomatic and true to my opinions, and still hadn't. I just read your review because of your comments about environmentalism in the Overstory thread, and it's helped a lot in getting started.

message 30: by Neil (new) - rated it 4 stars

Neil I’m glad to be of (unconscious) assistance!

Robert Yes!! I'm a 100 pages in and it's reminding of Fargo - same type of humor as well!

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