📖 🇵🇱 #14: A fairytale thriller from Poland

Dark comedy from Olga Tokarczuk

Welcome to Bookmarked, a weekly newsletter following my journey as I read one book from every country. If you’re enjoying my project, I’d love it if you shared Bookmarked with a friend.

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Olga Tokarczuk is a bestselling Polish author who was awarded the 2018 Nobel Prize in Literature. I’ve lost count of the number of times she’s been recommended to me over the years and now I understand why: Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, a sort of feminist fairytale thriller that’s also a paean to vegetarianism, is simply wonderful.

The book is set in a rural Polish village, near the border with the Czech Republic. It’s narrator is Janina Duszejko, a retired bridge construction engineer who teaches English and manages people’s holiday homes, whilst spending most of her free time studying astrology and translating the works of William Blake into Polish. Her two dogs, who she calls her Little Girls, have recently gone missing.

When Janina’s friend Oddball discovers the dead body of their neighbour Big Foot, he calls on Janina to help investigate. A militant animal rights activist, Janina never liked Big Foot on account of his hunting. Upon discovering that her neighbour choked to death on a bone, Janina develops a theory: the local animals must have conspired to kill Big Foot in an act of revenge. She writes to the police.  

What sort of a world is this? Someone’s body is made into shoes, into meatballs, sausages, a bedside rug, someone’s bones are boiled to make broth… Shoes, sofas, a shoulder bag made from someone’s belly, keeping warm with someone else’s fur, eating someone’s body, cutting it into bits and frying it in oil… Can it really be true? Is this nightmare really happening? This mass killing, cruel, impassive, automatic, without any pangs of conscience, without the slightest pause for thought, though plenty of thought is applied to ingenious philosophies and theologies. What sort of a world is this, where killing and pain are the norm? What on earth is wrong with us?

An investigation into Big Foot’s death is launched, but it’s not long before a police commandant is also found dead, swiftly followed by the owner of a fox farm, and the president of a mushroom picker’s association. Janina becomes increasingly convinced of her own theory, turning to astrology to glean more information about the string of murders. Like Alan Bennett’s Lady of Letters, she continues to write to the police, enumerating evidence based on victim cosmograms, historical examples of animals being charged for crimes, and impassioned meditations on the problems with industrial farming. Janina believes that the key to the mystery lies within her village’s unrelenting love of hunting. The problem is, the police suspect she’s mad.

I loved being inside the head of Janina, a deliciously unreliable narrator with a wonderfully original voice. Dark, snarky, and fiendishly smart, her way of thinking and expressing herself is nothing short of delightful.

Every single Person has their own expression which he or she overuses. Or uses incorrectly. These words or phrases are the key to their intellect. Mr. “Apparently.” Mr. “Generally,” Mr. “Probably,” Mr. “Fucking,” Mrs. “Don’t You Think?”, Mr. “As If.” The President was Mr. “In Truth.” Of course there are entire fashions for some words, just like the ones that for some crazy reason suddenly make everyone start going about in identical shoes or clothes—people just as suddenly start using one particular word or phrase. Recently the word “generally” was fashionable, but now “actually” is out in front.

Though Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead is effectively a murder mystery, it’s also a comedy which poses big, philosophical questions: what objective distinctions can be made between animals and humans? If animals were granted human rights, would they too be subject to criminal law? I haven’t read such a strong character-led novel for a while: this was 274 pages of utter joy.

Drive Your Bones Over the Ploughs of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk, translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones (Riverhead Books, 2018)

More books by Polish authors:

Here’s a list of the other recommendations I received this week:

  • Swallowing Mercury by by Wioletta Greg, tr. Eliza Marciniak

  • Boundary by Zofia Nałkowska, tr. Ursula Phillips

  • Marta by Eliza Orzeszkowa, tr. Anna Gąsienica Byrcyn and Stephanie Kraft

  • The House with the Stained-Glass Window by Żanna Słoniowska, tr. Antonia Lloyd Jones

  • Flights by Olga Tokarczuk, tr. Jennifer Croft

  • An Imperfect Time by Bronisław Wildstein, tr. Mateusz Julecki

  • Olanda by Rafał Wojasiński, tr. Charles S. Kraszewski

What have you read recently?

If you’ve read a brilliant book in translation or want to pass on a recommendation, I’d love to hear about it! For this project, I’m focussing on contemporary fiction and short stories, with a preference for female authors—but I won’t be too dogmatic about it so do share recommendations that don’t quite fit the bill, too.

You can get in touch by replying to this email or leaving a comment. I’ll be featuring your recommendations in upcoming newsletters, and I’ll keep a growing list here.

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Bookmarked is written by Tabatha Leggett. Thanks to Agnieszka Urbanowska from the Polish Book Institute for her recommendations for this edition. If you know someone who would enjoy this newsletter, please forward it to them!