“Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead” – What I’ve been reading

I first came across Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead during a work shift at the independent bookstore I worked in while studying in Dublin. The title, taken from the work of William Blake, made my eyes rest with intrigue on the blue paperback cover. Several months later I finally got around to reading it. I finished it in a matter of days and was left with sensations of unease, pleasure and the realisation of having discovered a new favourite author.

              Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead is the translated novel of Polish Nobel Prize in Literature winner Olga Tokarczuk. It can be described as a philosophical noir eco-thriller, and is set on a mountainous plateau in Poland, bordering the Czech Republic. Its protagonist is Janina, although she hates being called by her given name, a woman in her sixties who lives year-round in a cottage on the plateau. She is a hobby astrologist who enjoys translating the works of Blake.

              The plot sucks us into plateau life, which is disrupted by the ominous murders of several members of a hunting club. Our heroine Janina is certain that these killings have been conducted by animals, as revenge for the brutal murders of their own kind by these hunters.

              In the current world climate, gripped by the fear and uncertainty brought on by Covid-19, Drive Your Plow makes for a timely read. It echoes the current anxieties that many of us are feeling now; an unease with how separate we have become from the natural world and the consequences this has for us and the planet’s health. Several scientists are currently speaking out about how a pandemic such as Covid-19 could be a result of the planet’s overbearing meat and poultry industry[1]. In Drive Your Plow it is clear from the start that the protagonist sees a world around her which she means has lost touch with the natural environment. A world where us humans have placed ourselves at the top of the pedestal, regarding ourselves as the only living creatures with souls, and therefore the only creatures whose lives are sacred. The protagonist regards this disconnection between humans and other living beings with discontent and fear. “Is this nightmare really happening? This mass killing, cruel, impassive, automatic, without any pangs of conscience, without the slightest pause for thought…”[2] says the protagonist when airing her opinions on the way humans are currently relating to the animals they slaughter and eat.  

From reading the above, one can easily be misled to assume this is some sort of eco-fascist, hippie, vegan-pusher book. But to the sceptic I would like to say this book avoids all clichés when it comes to the themes it engages with. This is thanks to Tokarczyk’s acute intelligence, storytelling abilities and knowledge of the human mind. With a background in psychology, Tokarczyk is well equipped to create fully formed characters. The traces of her former occupation as a psychologist are scattered throughout the book, much like the frequent occurrence of animal footprints in the snow in the story. Tokarczuk knows the human mind, the way it can leap from one subject to another. This is demonstrated through the protagonist’s thought process as she reflects on everything from humans’ place in the world, animal rights, the soul, good and evil, fate and the joys of a well-made mustard soup. Every character in the book is equally peculiar in their own way, and also believable, real.

The protagonist is an unlikely heroine in many ways, an elderly woman with no husband or children, living on her own in a remote environment. She is aware of the fact that most people, particularly the authorities, see her as a batty, old mad-woman. She acknowledges that she lives in a world that does not accept her and her worldviews. Yet, she reflects on what it means to be a being of apparent insignificance. “But why should we have to be useful and for what reason?” The protagonist says. “A large tree, crooked and full of holes, survives for centuries without being cut down, because nothing could possibly be made of it. This example should raise the spirits of people like us.”[3]  

              In this philosophical, eco-thriller, Tokarczuk challenges humans’ positioning in the world, while simultaneously engaging with the most intimate aspects of what it means to be human. This storywill take you by the hand and lead you into a world where the eccentric becomes the ordinary, where the landscape is bleak, melancholy and trembling with life, and where animals are suspected of murder. Drive Your Plow is the first work of Tokarczuk that I have read, but it will certainly not be the last. I have found a writer who has the sorcerer-like ability to pull me into her world. I dare you to read her, and not feel somehow changed.

[1] “Is factory farming to blame for coronavirus?”, Spinney, 2020, The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/28/is-factory-farming-to-blame-for-coronavirus

[2] “Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead”, Tokarczuk, p.112, 2018.

[3] “Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead”, Tokarczuk, p.243-244, 2018.

Published by ScandiScribe

A twenty-something half Norwegian, half English girl based in Norway. Using this blog as a platform to write and reflect on topics such as literature, music, the natural environment, gender, identity and cultural politics.

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