Reading Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead (2018, tr. Antonia Lloyd-Jones. Original: Prowadź swój pług przez kości umarłych, 2009) is all about falling under the spell of the voice behind the story.
The book is narrated by Janina Dusezjko, an aging woman who lives by herself in the Polish countryside, near the border to the Czech Republic. She is the village eccentric, passionate about animal rights and astrology. And she is a delightfully unreliable narrator.
We learn that she used to be an engineer and now goes into town once a week to work as a teacher. Every weekend, Dionizy (Dizzy), a former student of hers, visits her to discuss his translation of William Blake. When a series of mysterious deaths hits the village over the course of a few months, Janina gets involved in the investigations – which, in turn, she conveys to us through the strange lens of her own astrological predictions and mystical beliefs: “it’s Animals taking revenge on people“; “Its Animals show the truth about a country“.
Her idiosyncratic voice was the highlight of the book for me: she randomly capitalizes some nouns – such as Ailments, Night, Being, Divine Anger, Deer, Mankind –, and doesn’t refer to people by their given names, but rather by the epithets she creates for them – such as Oddball, Black Coat, Good News, and Big Foot. At times, she sounds like a siren, an oracle, or a wise old lady; and, at others, like the village’s witch, or a madwoman in the attic, a disembodied, ancient voice dotted with Blakean capitalisations.
William Blake seems to haunt the book. Much like your protagonist Janina, he also had an idiosyncratic, mystical way of viewing things; he delighted on paradox; was considered mad by his contemporaries; and was hostile to all forms of organised religion (likewise, for Janina, pulpits, hunting towers and watchtowers in concentration camps seem to be closely related). Further, the chapters are prefaced by extracts from Blake; Dizzy is working on a translation of “The Mental Traveller”; and the novel borrows its title from Blake’s “Proverbs of Hell” in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1794) – “In seed time learn, in harvest teach, in winter enjoy. Drive your cart and your plow over the bones of the dead. The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom”.
The novel is a blend of murder mystery, thriller, dark comedy, and noir, layered with some gothic elements, and steeped in an atmosphere that reminded me of Fargo (1996, IMDb). Corpses turn up in the woods, showing signs of brutality or rotting, swarmed by beetles, or surrounded by deer footprints in the snow.
With a somewhat predictable plot, the book is less successful as a mystery novel, but it excels as a pastiche of the genre. I like its quirky, at times bizarre sense of humour – as well as its underlying thread on free will, determinism, and animal rights, which, unlike the murder mystery itself, finds no easy moral answers here. As Blake wrote in the book that gives the novel its title, “the fox condemns the trap, not himself.”
Another highlight of the book for me is the way it always remains on the very threshold of a fairy tale, but never really crosses to the other side. For Janina, the literal, the metaphorical, and the metaphysical often seem to be one single thing, and she has the ability to convey the most gruesome details in an oddly lyrical way. She blurs the lines between imagination and reality, and perhaps purposely so.
Janina dreams of her mother and grandmother as if they were meeting in real life; she attends a costume party that reads like a dream-sequence (“I put my arms around her, and there we stood together – a fake Wolf and a small woman in a pool of light from the firehouse window. The shadows of the dancers flew across us”); she seems to be surrounded by corpses; she believes that everything can be predicted by an accurate astrology chart; and she is convinced that the series of murders plaguing the village may have been committed by… the animals in the woods. Who are the dead in the novel’s title, after all? The humans, the animals, history, all of the above?
As we fall into Janina’s spell, we cannot quite let go of the uncanny feeling that the animals might really be exacting revenge on the local hunters, even though we know that this is not possible. “The tygers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction”, wrote Blake. The feeling is there, running through the novel, hand in hand with the Blakean belief in the purifying nature of rage: the tygers of wrath are on the loose, and they are glorious.
“In a way, people like her, those who wield a pen, can be dangerous. At once a suspicion of fakery springs to mind – that such a Person is not him or herself, but an eye that’s constantly watching, and whatever it sees it changes into sentences: in the process it strips reality of its most essential quality – its inexpressibility .” –
I understood that sadness is an important word in the definition of the world. It is at the root of everything, it is the fifth element, the quintessence. ” –
“I grew up in a beautiful era, now sadly in the past. In it there was great readiness for change, and a talent for creating revolutionary visions. Nowadays no one still has the courage to think up anything new. All they ever talk about, round the clock, is how things already are, they just keep rolling out the same old ideas. Reality has grown old and gone senile; after all, it is definitely subject to the same laws as every living organism – it ages. Just like the cells of the body, its tiniest components – the senses, succumb to apoptosis. Apoptosis is natural death, brought about by the tiredness and exhaustion of matter. In Greek this word means ‘the dropping of petals.’ The world has dropped its petals. ” –
About the book
- Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2018, tr. Antonia Lloyd-Jones, 268 p. Goodreads
- Original: Prowadź swój pług przez kości umarłych, 2009
- My rating: 3,5 stars
- The novel was made into a film in 2017, directed by Agnieszka Holland (Pokot, IMDb)
- Projects: 100 Best WIT; European Reading Challenge, hosted by Gilion.