Various Images of Truth

Olga Tokarczuk, trans. Antonia Lloyd-Jones, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead

Fitzcarraldo Editions, 272pp, £12.99, ISBN 9781910695715

reviewed by Antonia Cundy

Reading a novel when you know that you are going to review it is an odd thing. No matter how many times you approach the exercise – whether you diligently insist on reading it once through like a ‘normal’ reader, saving note-taking until a second read, or not – it is impossible to completely escape the reviewer’s mindset. Whilst the story unfolds, another narrative begins to write itself in your own head, the narrative of your review itself. This is particularly true when what you’re reading is a new English translation of a novel by the 2018 Man Booker International Prize winner, Olga Tokarczuk. Usual thoughts (won’t that description, of two regal white foxes who ‘looked like the diplomatic service of the Animal Kingdom, come here to reconnoitre’, work as a perfect example of the novel’s dazzling imagery?) jostle with questions raised by the author’s prestige (how does this compare to Flights? Should I even be comparing it to Flights at all?).

The worry is that thoughts and ideas like these will spark so frequently that you lose track of the main task at hand; you’re 30 pages in and suddenly realise you’ve probably only actually read about ten of them. Luckily, a novel as compelling as Tokarczuk’s noir thriller, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, deals with much of this difficulty itself. First published in Polish in 2009 and now translated into English by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, Drive Your Plow casts a mythical spell over a chilly psychological thriller. It is so tantalisingly written, its developments so precisely but invisibly measured out, that I found myself far more likely to forget about the reviewing than the reading.

The story is narrated by Janina Dusezjko, a woman in her sixties suffering from mysterious ‘ailments’. She lives in a remote Polish village where winter is referred to as ‘the Darkness’:

‘Here the sky hangs over us dark and low, like a dirty screen, on which the clouds are fighting fierce battles. That’s what our houses are for – to protect us from the sky, otherwise it would pervade the very inside of our bodies, where, like a little ball of glass, our Soul is sitting. If such a thing exists.’

A passage like this is typical of Janina: her eccentricities as an avid astrologist, animal lover and devotee of William Blake, are matched by a razor-sharp wit and often fatalist rationality. Out of passages narrated with cosmic seduction and peppered with reverent capitalisations, come often unexpected moments of dark humour:

‘It’s hard work talking to some people, most often males. I have a Theory about it. With age, many men come down with testosterone autism, the symptoms of which are a gradual decline in social intelligence and capacity for interpersonal communication, as well as a reduced ability to formulate thoughts . . . He develops an interest in various Tools and machinery, and he’s drawn to the Second World War and the biographies of famous people, mainly politicians and villains. His capacity to read novels almost entirely vanishes . . . I think Oddball was suffering from this Ailment.’

Oddball, incidentally, is Janina’s personal nickname for one of her neighbours. It is with Oddball that Janina discovers the first murder of a member of their local hunting club. Soon after, a number of other murders follow, the victims of whom all belong to the club. In Janina’s mind (and, she argues, in the stars) the case is clear – ‘the Deer and other eventual Animal Culprits’ are behind the crimes, enacting vengeance on those who take their kin’s lives for sport.

Though this might sound far-fetched, it’s where we hit on the narrative I’d been writing in my own head whilst reading Drive Your Plow. Previously, I wouldn’t have thought I was one to be convinced by the idea that animals can calculatedly murder humans. My response to Janina’s theory, I’d have thought, would be more like that of one of her neighbours, a woman she calls ‘the Writer, the Grey Lady’. The Writer refuses to believe Janina, telling her, ‘It’s absurd.’ But when reading those words of the Writer’s, what I realised was that I totally and utterly disagreed with her. I thought that she, the Writer, not Janina, was a madman, a fool ignoring the obvious. Janina’s reply encapsulates the experience of reading Tokarczuk:

‘“I thought you, as a Writer, had an imagination and a capacity for conjecture, and were not closed to ideas that at first glance seemed improbable. You should know that everything possible to be believed is an image of the truth.”’

Ever so subtly, this is what Torkarczuk does throughout the novel – she opens reader’s eyes to imagination, conjecture, various images of truth. Captivated by the calm, controlled reasoning of Janina, Tokarczuk acquits her characterisation so perfectly that before long our reasoning is fused with Janina’s herself. I was compelled to believe, to see, things I wouldn’t normally; think thoughts I wouldn’t have considered before. And this wasn’t limited to the thriller plot, but all observations. For example, in the corporeal appreciation a reader might recognise from passages of Flights:

‘We have this body of ours, a troublesome piece of luggage, we don’t really know anything about it and we need all sorts of Tools to find out about its not natural processes . . . The angels, if they really do exist, must be splitting their sides laughing at us. Fancy being given a body and not knowing anything about it. There’s no instruction manual.’

Or her, and her translator’s, ability to mimic the meaning of her sentences through the sound of its language – having been introduced to Oddball’s neatly ordered cutlery drawer, complete with ‘tongs for removing cling film when it sticks to the roller’, we read: ‘Later that day I thought about his drawer again, that peeping into it brought my total calm, and that I would really like to be one of those useful Utensils.’ Tokarczuk’s attention to detail, her precision with words, is as polished as Oddball’s cutlery drawer. Gratefully, in the novel, we get far more than a peep into this way of seeing.

So that was going to be the narrative of this review – that a really good book can change the way we see things, and that Drive Your Plow unequivocally excels at this. But it is only a really clever book that manages to upend the impression slowly being recorded in the reader’s mind and throw it on its head right in the very last pages. And Drive Your Plow does this too, with a twist that made me want to instantly re-read the entire thing and find out what I’d missed. Like Janina’s frequent walks in the snowy woods, I wanted to retrace my steps through the novel’s pages, to pinpoint the secreted moments of ingenuity Tokarczuk had planted in the narrative. Luckily, it was time for note-taking, so the second read was entirely justified.
Antonia Cundy is a freelance journalist and writer. She has written for the TLS, the Financial Times and the Economist, amongst others. She is an assistant editor at Review 31.