Olga Tokarczuk’s extremely metal titled Drive Your Plow Over The Bones Of The Dead is a murder mystery of sorts. Set in a remote Polish village on the boarder of the Czech Republic, atop a plateau, it fairly gently presents a string of bodies to our hero — Janina an old woman whose understanding of the fates of people in the world is set in the bedrock of astrology and a deep love of William Blake, where the title of the novel comes from.
The setting is lushly described, threatening and dense. The events of the story spring from the disappearance of Janina’s two dogs, and the human bodies that keep turning up.
Janina, who doesn’t like to be called that, is at first called across to another neighbour of hers — one of the only three who stay for the winter on the plateau — finding him dead. Mysteriously he has choked on a deer bone, one that he had caught in his snares in the forest. Mysteriously there are deer all around his house, seeming to watch him.
This revenge-disney scene is one we’re treated to repeatedly throughout the murders, suggestions of foxes luring our fur farmers to the woods, or beetles devouring a corpse almost immediately. Janina has a deep affection for animals, believing that hunting should be treated as murder and that, with the later bodies found in her town, that the animals are the perpetrators of the crime. After all, the stars say it.
The Blake influence and the astrology leads to a wild kind of proper-nouning — we are treated to someone being a Person with a capital puh, discussions of a Blakeian Fall and other ideals held out in the fashion of the time which is: if it is important, capitalise it. These are markers for the times that Janina heads off into what she believes to be the Truth — compared to the moments she is less sure about the world and herself.
Olga provides the reader with lovely images through Janina, someone who wants to leave her body sometimes, and becomes a kind of jellyfish self
These moment of fancy are the real treat of the book, which keeps you reading between the nuisance of bodies coming up. The writing is one of small ideas expressed well, and the way that we observe the uncertainity of our protagonist throughout small and sometimes seemingly meaningless part of her life gives a fly on the wall effect. Of course, we also get to be part of her visitations from dead relatives, her secretly-naming each person in the village and town, and her interesting Theories.
There are parts of this novel where one might suspect the protagonist is a witch, or in some other way capable of creating the world around her in the shape that she wants. Her remoteness and the way that she uses the stars suggests that this might be the case on several occasions. And this might be part of the centre of the book, the fact she is treated as an outsider means that she is not meant to have any power upon society, and if she were, she would be a witch.
Equally, her interpreting the planets and the companionship of Dizzy, a translator of Blake, shows how their way of seeing the world (loose, interpretive), and how it buts up against the traditionalists she is surrounded by. There’s no real room for someone like her in their world and she finds endless friction there.
It’s a strange, wandering, whodunit, with endless charm — but you might forget to ask the question of who dunnit really.
This week’s song is Slow Show by The National.
Thanks for reading Etch To Their Own. It was written by @CJEggett who is extremely full of delicious squid and quite brown and fat at the moment, like a turkey getting ready for Christmas. Although I am unsure if they feed turkey’s delicious pygmy squid. I’ve been on holiday somewhere warm and once volcanic, but can’t wait to hurry home to some drizzle and nippy winds. ❤