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

Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk
Rate this book
Clear rating

by
5498525
's review

bookshelves: tokarczuk, translated-from-polish, 21st-century-favourites

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 in 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 however. 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…
145 likes · flag

Sign into Goodreads to see if any of your friends have read Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead.
Sign In »

Reading Progress

March 20, 2019 – Started Reading
March 20, 2019 – Shelved
March 24, 2019 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-50 of 64 (64 new)


Tony I held Riddley Walker in my hands today . . . but didn't buy it. Shame-faced now.


message 2: by Fionnuala (new) - added it

Fionnuala In the palm of your hand! Well, it's not quite Infinity — but there are a lot of stories in there!


message 3: by Jaline (new)

Jaline Excellent review, Fionnuala!


message 4: by Anni (new)

Anni This is great, Fi. And fortuitously for me, as this is my next review assignment for Whichbook (I'll try not to plagiarise!)


message 5: by Fionnuala (new) - added it

Fionnuala Jaline wrote: "Excellent review, Fionnuala!"

Books like this one are a pleasure to review, Jaline. Some writers just give you more to work with!


message 6: by Hanneke (last edited Mar 27, 2019 02:19AM) (new) - added it

Hanneke Beautiful review, Fionnuala. And I so adore all your strings and connections once again! As to my own connection reading your review, I had to think of Blake's The Tyger. Had to learn it by heart in high school as a punishment when sent out from the classroom, but it was not a punishment at all as I can recite it till this day, that's how much I loved it!


message 7: by Czarny (new)

Czarny Pies I have been intending to read this work for some time. Your review has convinced me that it is time to find a copy. I am surprised and delighted to discover that Tokarczuk is a fan of William Blake.


message 8: by Fionnuala (new) - added it

Fionnuala Anni wrote: "This is great, Fi. And fortuitously for me, as this is my next review assignment for Whichbook (I'll try not to plagiarise!)"

Just go straight to the source and quote Blake as I did, Anni! Tokarczuk uses his lines as chapter headings (not the ones I used) and if you listed all the chapter headings, it would read like a mini version of the book!


message 9: by Anni (new)

Anni Ooh, thanks for this advice!


message 10: by Fionnuala (new) - added it

Fionnuala Hanneke wrote: "...As to my own connection reading your review, I had to think of Blake's The Tyger. Had to learn it by heart in high school as a punishment when sent out from the classroom, but it was not a punishment at all as I can recite it till this day, that's how much I loved it!"

You subversive child, Hanneke! What a poor choice of punishment on the teacher's part — Blake encourages subversive thinking as well as being a treat to recite!


message 11: by Fionnuala (new) - added it

Fionnuala Czarny wrote: "I have been intending to read this work for some time. Your review has convinced me that it is time to find a copy. I am surprised and delighted to discover that Tokarczuk is a fan of William Blake."

This book is more obviously fiction than Flights, Czarny. You could even say it's a detective story though it's a lot more than that.
Again, Tokarczuk defies categorization, and that's something I admire in her writing.


message 12: by Beata (new)

Beata This is another novel by Tokarczuk I should read, and your review prompted me to call my library to check if a copy is available ... Beautiful review, Fionnuala ....


message 13: by Antigone (new)

Antigone And nested inside the Tokarczuk, the Blake, and the Frost, a whisper of Bronte...and your Rochester! I'm hunting romance today, it seems.


Diana That was an insightful read. I especially appreciated your opinion on the planet Venus and the title of the book. So much can be read into nearly every single page of that book. However, why on earth the author made the detective story in this book so obvious? I would have personally desired to see more intrigue as to who is the murderer. I guessed from the fifth page, that is not so good.


message 15: by Fionnuala (new) - added it

Fionnuala Beata wrote: "This is another novel by Tokarczuk I should read, and your review prompted me to call my library to check if a copy is available ... Beautiful review, Fionnuala ...."

I look forward to getting your insights into this Tokarczuk book, Beata — it's so very different to Flights!


message 16: by Fionnuala (new) - added it

Fionnuala Antigone wrote: "And nested inside the Tokarczuk, the Blake, and the Frost, a whisper of Bronte...and your Rochester! I'm hunting romance today, it seems."

There's the oddest little love story nestled inside this book too, Antigone. Everything about this book is odd, different, offbeat, unconventional. I think you might like it.


message 17: by Fionnuala (new) - added it

Fionnuala Diana wrote: "...So much can be read into nearly every single page of that book. However, why on earth the author made the detective story in this book so obvious..."

You're right indeed that every line of this book contains treasures, Diana. That's one of the aspects of Tokarczuk's writing I enjoy the most — Flights was full of gems, and House of Day, House of Night which I'm currently reading, has its share too.
About the detective story elements in this book, I felt that Tokarczuk was satirising the genre in her own odd way so I just sat back and enjoyed it.


message 18: by Mir (new)

Mir I hope you had the appropriate quaff handy.



message 19: by Ilse (new) - added it

Ilse Your write-up is as intriguing as the wonderful title of this novel Fionnuala (and I loved your own Frost story :-)). Particularly your last paragraph struck me - a few months ago, on the annual Saint-Hubertus blessing in the parish, I discussed with a friend the somewhat ambiguous nature of the saint - actually it is a blessing of killing - I am already with your Venus before having read the book :-).


message 20: by Fionnuala (new) - added it

Fionnuala Miriam wrote: "I hope you had the appropriate quaff handy.
"


It's just occurred to me, Miriam, that many drinking places used to be named after animals that were hunted — names like The Stag's Head, The Boar's Head, The Foxes Den.
Saint Hubertus had a lot to answer for.


message 21: by Mir (new)

Mir All part of the grand tradition of getting drunk, going hunting, and accidentally shooting one's companion.

Or is that "accidentally"?


message 22: by Fionnuala (new) - added it

Fionnuala Ilse wrote: "...a few months ago, on the annual Saint-Hubertus blessing in the parish, I discussed with a friend the somewhat ambiguous nature of the saint - actually it is a blessing of killing - I am already with your Venus before having read the book..."

Then this is definitely a book for you, Ilse — Tokarczuk is making exactly that point about the veneration of Saint Hubertus.
So interesting too that there is a Saint Hubertus ceremony where you live. Must be prime hunting country.


message 23: by Carol (new) - added it

Carol Your wonderful review has inspired me to move this up my TBR, and I was quite happily anticipating reading even beforehand. I mean, with such a fine title, how could I not? Thank you!


message 24: by Junta (new)

Junta Which Frost poem did you include on the card? :-)


message 25: by Fionnuala (new) - added it

Fionnuala One I knew he liked, Junta — Stopping by woods on a snowy evening.


message 26: by Fionnuala (new) - added it

Fionnuala Carol wrote: "Your wonderful review has inspired me to move this up my TBR, and I was quite happily anticipating reading even beforehand. I mean, with such a fine title, how could I not? Thank you!"

I hope you will really enjoy this Tokarczuk, Carol. Her ideas are quite startling, and they combine very well with Blake's verses. A combination made in Heaven — or maybe that's Hell!.


message 27: by Junta (new)

Junta Fionnuala wrote: "One I knew he liked, Junta — Stopping by woods on a snowy evening."

Wonderful, Fio, just read it online. I just checked my review for Pale Fire where I asked for poetry recommendations, and he was one of the six poets you mentioned.


message 28: by Caterina (new) - added it

Caterina O what a title! What a review! You pulled me in, smiling, saying o this is a book for me, lover of contradictions and the disturbing mysteries of Blake. But I'm sure I'm being pulled into something more disturbing than I yet realize.

Loved, loved hearing your personal "poetry test" stories. Obviously that first individual was not for you -- imagine not loving those lines of Blake! I can't. How lovely that you met your match in the woods on a snowy evening...


message 29: by Fergus (new)

Fergus A wonderful review, Fionnuala. Thanks so much!


message 30: by Fionnuala (last edited Mar 30, 2019 08:44AM) (new) - added it

Fionnuala Junta wrote: "Wonderful, Fio, just read it online. I just checked my review for Pale Fire where I asked for poetry recommendations, and he was one of the six poets you mentioned..."

You sent me back to Pale Fire, Junta, and glancing through the poem, I find echoes of Blake, and of this book. So interesting.

And there's the wall of sound: the nightly wall,
Raised by a trillion crickets in the fall.
Impenetrable. Halfway up the hill
I'd pause in thrall of their delirious trill.
That's Dr Sutton's light. That's the Great Bear.
A thousand years ago five minutes were,
Equal to forty ounces of fine sand.
Outstare the stars. Infinite foretime
And infinite aftertime: above your head
They close like giant wings. And you are dead.



message 31: by Fionnuala (new) - added it

Fionnuala Caterina wrote: "O what a title! What a review! You pulled me in, smiling, saying o this is a book for me, lover of contradictions and the disturbing mysteries of Blake. But I'm sure I'm being pulled into something more disturbing than I yet realize..."

Your intuition is working well, Caterina. Tokarczuk plays with our convictions regarding right and wrong, and leaves us uplifted, but bemused about why we should be. She and Blake go very well together.

About the To see a world in a grain of sand... lines, I think there are people who refuse to make the imaginative leap necessary to follow Blake and see what he's prompting us to see.


message 32: by Fionnuala (new) - added it

Fionnuala Fergus wrote: "A wonderful review, Fionnuala. Thanks so much!"

Thank you, Fergus.


message 33: by Ann-Marie (new) - added it

Ann-Marie I am waiting for my chance to read this one.


message 34: by Caterina (new) - added it

Caterina Fionnuala wrote: "And there's the wall of sound: the nightly wall,
Raised by a trillion crickets in the fall...."


I know this comment was addressed to Junta, not me -- please forgive me, both of you -- but what is this poem you quoted, whose is it?


message 35: by Fionnuala (new) - added it

Fionnuala Ann-Marie wrote: "I am waiting for my chance to read this one."

I wish you much pleasure, Ann-Marie, and a lot of fun too.


message 36: by Fionnuala (last edited Mar 30, 2019 10:26AM) (new) - added it

Fionnuala Caterina wrote: "...what is this poem you quoted, whose is it?"

It's a long poem called Pale Fire, supposedly by the poet John Shade, Caterina. Nabokov built his novel Pale Fire around it.
The poem begins with a rhyming couplet,
I was the shadow of the waxwing slain
By the false azure in the windowpane

and continues in a mixture of rhyme and blank verse for thirty pages, followed by two hundred pages of commentary, plus an index.
What a crazy idea for a novel, you might say. And it is, but it makes for a great novel - though it's tempting to suspect cynicism on Nabokov's part towards poets. I'm tempted to paraphrase Blake:
To see a poem in a perfect joke,
And a poet in a mad extravagance,
Hold the reader fast in your book
And the critics in the deepest trance.


message 37: by Caterina (new) - added it

Caterina Fionnuala wrote: "Caterina wrote: "...what is this poem you quoted, whose is it?"

It's the long poem called Pale Fire supposedly by John Shade, that Nabokov inserted into his novel of the same name, Caterina.
It b..."


That's a stunning first couplet -- and a funning final quattrain, ha! :D
So Nabakov pretty much invented John Shade and his poem? It sounds like it transcends jokery though ... Thank you for turning me on to yet another must-read ...


message 38: by Fionnuala (new) - added it

Fionnuala The book is really very funny, Caterina, because the commentary is written by a crazy character called Kinbote who has his own very peculiar agenda.
And the poem is a treat to read.


message 39: by Violet (new)

Violet wells Must finally read Robert Frost this year.


message 40: by Fionnuala (new) - added it

Fionnuala I wish you lots of free time, Violet, time away from work pressures, time to stop and watch, for example, woods fill up with snow. Or at least time to read about Robert Frost watching woods fill up with snow!


message 41: by Cheryl (new)

Cheryl Lesson learned: Frost will get you the ring, even if Blake is a good source of poetic obsession. I have the ring and a collection of Frost, so must revisit Blake. What an enjoyable read, Fionnuala!


message 42: by Fionnuala (new) - added it

Fionnuala I appreciated being sent back to Blake via Tokarczuk, Cheryl. I'd never have read his 'Proverbs of Hell' from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell otherwise, and when I looked at the various parts of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, including the section called 'The Doors of Perception', I realised something that had been puzzling me: why Tokarczuk uses The Doors in a key scene. It seems the band were called after a book by Aldous Huxley which itself was called after Blake's 'Doors of Perception'. I love when I figure things like that out!


message 43: by Ray (new)

Ray Ah, but did you own up that the poetry was by Robert Frost rather than self penned?


message 44: by Fionnuala (new) - added it

Fionnuala But yes, Ray! I actually made that birthday card myself using a piece of scraper board (do you remember those?) I scraped out a forest snow scene with a horse and carriage beside it, all white on black, and trancribed the poem onto the back of the board/card. He still has it.


message 45: by Ray (new)

Ray Fionnuala wrote: "But yes, Ray! I actually made that birthday card myself using a piece of scraper board (do you remember those?) I scraped out a forest snow scene with a horse and carriage beside it, all white on b..."

Good for you. Honesty is a virtue.

Twenty years ago I sent my wife a Valentines card from Singapore. I put the wrong postage on it so it went by ship and arrived in April.

Cue a frosty phone call in mid Feb and delighted apologies in April. I have never had the heart/guts to tell her.


message 46: by Fionnuala (new) - added it

Fionnuala oh well, there was a lot to be said for mail boats..


message 47: by Dolors (new)

Dolors "That friendship lasted much better. Reader, I married him!"

Like Jane did marry Mr Rochester?
Hmm...I bet she would have chosen Blake over Frost any given day...


message 48: by Fionnuala (new) - added it

Fionnuala Yes, Dolors, Jane would definitely be a Blake fan but Rochester would prefer Frost, I think, and that's what's significant :-)


message 49: by Julie (new)

Julie Another splendid review, Fionnuala, as have been the others on this author, whom I ve not read, because quite frankly her style seems intimidating. But with Blake in the mix I may have to rethink the road not taken with her, and see if in the end it would make any difference, after all.


message 50: by Fionnuala (new) - added it

Fionnuala I can see how Flights might seem intimidating, Julie, made up as it is of essays, odd bits of information and fiction — though you'd soon discover that the common threads running through it all make it very satisfying to read.
This book is much more conventionally satisfying being a straightforward story of a small community experiencing a series of unusual happenings.
And I think you'd like the narrator, Julie. In fact, I'm certain you'd like her!


« previous 1
back to top