Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk (2nd review)

Fitzcarraldo Editions, September 2018, 272 pp

Fitzcarraldo Editions, September 2018, 272 pp

Revisits continue, as do high ratings. Olga Tokarczuk’s magnificent Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead (translated by found its way to the Man Booker International 2019 longlist, even though the author won the prize last year with Flights, a much wider book in its scope compared to the more focused follow-up. I read Drive Your Plow in September last year amid the hassle of a new job and never got around to thinking about it in detail. I did write a short review of it, but in the spirit of MBI longlist completion, here are some updated thoughts.

The arguably ecofeminist motive behind Tokarczuk’s novel clearly affects my own view of it, as I’m intrigued by stories that probe the dichotomy of human and animal, and stories that epitomize the largely male phenomenon of denigrating women and nature. Tokarczuk taps into this through her peculiar narrator, a valerian-infused elderly woman taking care of people’s summer houses over the winter in Poland somewhere near the Czech border. The setup reminds me of the cover of a fine article collection I’ve been reading recently. The narrator is more likely to perceive people through astronomical alignments than giving them even real names:

What a lack of imagination it is to have official first names and surnames. No one ever remembers them, they’re so divorced from the Person, and so banal that they don’t remind us of them at all. […] That’s why I try my best never to use first names and surnames, but prefer epithets that come to mind of their own accord the first time I see a Person. I’m sure this is the right way to use language, rather than tossing about words stripped of all meaning.

Hence, animals are Animals (“Hares, Badgers, and Deer”) and the narrator’s main human companion is called Oddball. And an oddball novel it is, crooked in every respect, and it is lovely precisely because of that. On one level, the book is a murder mystery, nothing out of the ordinary really, but the crime aspect is subordinate to what I deem is much more important in the novel: the brilliant ways that Tokarzcuk depicts the struggle of being different in a community where the rules are set by rather run-of-the-mill, heteronormative men. The author illustrates this through various bureaucratic male characters with whom the narrator interacts and who frown upon her time and again. This is not to imply that Tokarczuk is being misandrist either, she’s too clever for that. I think she balances carefully in her depiction of the narrator, who is indeed a bit contentious, but essentially she just prefers the company of Animals over humans, and what’s wrong with that?

Tokarczuk may have remarked that Drive Your Plow is a filler book written between two big projects – Flights and The Books of Jacob to be published next year – but, all authorial intent aside, this is by no means your average murder mystery. It was among my favorite books of 2018, and I’m glad it’s longlisted for the MBI, even though I would rather see a different author win the prize this year. It doesn’t quite reach the epic heights (hah) of Flights, but other than that, I don’t find much fault in here.

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