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‘These are the gems of the human soul’

Theodore Davies

[1]

Olga Tokarczuk, trans. Antonia Lloyd-Jones
Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead
Riverhead Books
2020
288pp
$17.00 (Paperback)



If existentialism as a literary phenomenon is about the experience of the individual, it is a shame that so many of its protagonists don the same essential uniform of turtlenecks and dry cynicism. Step forward Janina Duszejko, the central character in Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead. The tools Janina uses to construct meaning are improbable bedfellows—the poetry of William Blake, belief in the equality of animals, and astrology—yet this remarkable novel uses this to its advantage, leaving the reader feeling that her singular world-view may well be more sensible than orthodoxy.

On paper, the book’s plot is well-rehearsed: in a secluded Polish village near the Czech border, a series of hunters are found dead; an ageing school teacher chooses to investigate in light of perceived police incapacity. However, to describe this as a simple murder mystery would be akin to equating Bicycle Thieves with The Italian Job—this is a book about the detective, not the crime. As the novel proceeds, it is the mystery of Janina that unravels, and occupies the reader’s imagination.

Pages are filled not with Conan Doyle-esque crime scene forensics, but extended descriptions of Janina’s attempts to explain events using astrology, and impassioned letters to the police arguing that the murders were carried out by vengeful animals, retaliating to their mistreatment by the hunters. This lack of preoccupation with the overarching plot also provides space for Janina’s quotidian observations to shine: she diagnoses  her  neighbour  with  “testosterone  autism”—symptoms include “a gradual decline in social intelligence” and an attraction to World War II; she refuses to divulge details of sexual encounters as she is neither “Maudlin nor Sentimental”. It  is this humour,  these minor qualities, that humanise Janina, and allow the grander ideas of the text to be carried off without stretching the reader’s patience.

One of the book’s dominant themes is the conflict between Janina’s beliefs regarding the moral status of animals, and the failure of establishment figures (clergy, policemen, politicians) to understand her perspective. If Peter Singer’s great contribution to the debate on animal ethics was to argue for the view of animals as a kind of moral patient—beings with interests relevant to our ethical decision-making—then Janina’s is to go one step further, and argue that they are also agents, capable of understanding concepts such as justice, and acting accordingly. Indeed, she argues that they are “more human than people”, given the naïveté, bitterness and cruelty of those she encounters. Another of Singer’s claims about animal rights is that ‘speciesism’ may well be looked back on in future generations as a grave moral transgression, just as we now reflect on slavery. Janina guides the reader to the same conclusion, albeit more forcefully: “What sort of world is this, where killing and pain are the norm? What on earth is wrong with us?”

These questions, although focused on animals in the mind of Janina, have much greater extension. Context is of use here: the novel’s publishing coincided with the rise of the right in Poland; the incumbent President, Andrzej Duda, is a proponent of social conservatism, political control of institutions such as the police and judiciary, and a return to Catholic tradition. It is likely no coincidence, then, that the members of the hunting club against whom Janina is pitted belong to these selfsame bodies—she is concerned with animals, but could just as easily be fighting for the cause of immigrants, LGBT+ people, or religious minorities. Thus, to interpret this as a narrowly anti- carnivorous tale would be a gross oversimplification; it is a critique of the entire politico-social status quo, of the kinds of person, institution, and ideology we allow to govern our lives.

The unlikely guardian Janina turns to in all this is none other than William Blake. Along with her ex-student Dizzy, she enjoys translating his works into their native tongue, “developing English negatives to produce Polish sentences in the darkroom of the mind”. In Blake’s writings she finds reflections and continuations of her beliefs: that her world exists after the Fall, and that it is governed by “reason, stupid and strict”. She hopes for a return to Eden—embodied for her by the Czech Republic—a place where “Man is not just a cog in the system, not just playing a role, but a free Creature”. Just as Blake’s visionary mythology was disregarded as a serious approach to life, so too is Janina’s; hers is one of the stars and planets, complex astrologies deployed to explain why people meet their fate. Her interpretation of Blake is of a proto-existentialist, encouraging the authentic life of “heart and intuition”—as such, she rejects the names society gives people, which are “divorced and banal”, instead favouring her instinctive grasp of them; accordingly we meet Oddball, Good News and The Grey Lady. Similarly, certain words are consistently capitalised: “Ailments”, “Death”, “Creatures”, “Machines”. In so doing, she assigns them roles in her inner pantheon. Tokarczuk, in drawing so heavily on Blakean imagery, is juxtaposing individual vision with detached reason, and calling upon the reader to decide where they draw the line.

Lloyd-Jones’ translational prowess has been especially lauded for one passage in particular, where Janina and Dizzy compare four translations of an excerpt from Blake’s The Mental Traveller,-

in rendering a Polish translation of English back into the latter, she artfully conserves the poesy and emphases of the different attempts. This is a rare flourish, however. Elsewhere, she conveys both the humour and gravity of Tokarczuk’s writing without embellishment or skipping a beat. And the writing is deserving of such careful handling. Given the subject matter, Tokarczuk’s prose could easily fall into authorial insertion, a three-hundred-page lecture on the state of the world. On the contrary, throughout it feels as if we are truly reading Janina’s words—we are transported with her by the magic of the weather channel, we can feel the care she takes in plotting the stars, her dedication to locating her destiny. The ‘important’ often plays second fiddle to the important, defined by Janina. After all, this is her story, her world, her voice.

In other hands, this would have the potential to be a truly catastrophic book: a self-absorbed, imbalanced, incomprehensible tract on an unhappy medley of ideas. That it is none of these things is perhaps the greatest praise that can be given to its author. Instead, it is a celebration of individuality, an elegy for humanity, and a bitingly contemporary existential challenge to the reader.

“Did he really think like that? What was he describing? Where is it happening, and when? Is it a fable or a myth ”

“It’s happening all the time and everywhere,” he’d say, with a gleam in his eye.

**

Theodore Davies [2] St. Anne’s