I read this for my book club and really enjoyed it. This is the kind of book you put down and then you find yourself thinking about long afterwards. This author won the Nobel Prize in 2018, and I can see why. It’s kind of a strange book, but then I always find translated works a little difficult to read, because they are written in a tone I’m not used to.
The story is set in a rural area in southwest Poland, near the border of the Czech Republic. It’s winter and the roads are impassible; the more affluent residents of this area all go somewhere else for the winter. Janina is an older woman who studies astrology, translates the work of William Blake, and cares for the homes of these part-year residents. She’s a fascinating character. For example, she gives everyone she meets a name, since she believes the names we’re assigned at birth are meaningless (her own included). She prefers animals to people and she suffers from mysterious “Ailments”. But she isn’t foolish or crazy.
You know what, sometimes it seems to me we’re living in a world that we fabricate for ourselves. We decide what’s good and what isn’t, we draw maps of meanings for ourselves . . . And then we spend our whole lives struggling with what we have invented for ourselves. The problem is that each of us has our own version of it, so people find it hard to understand each other.Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk
This is a murder mystery of a sort. One of the hunters living in the village dies in his home from choking. When another resident dies, Janina becomes convinced that the animals are killing off the humans that hunt them.
This is one of those books that’s deceptively complex; it involves literary references, Polish culture and history, beliefs about fate/destiny, and nature/animal rights. My book club loved the way language is used in this book, from Janina’s naming of the characters, to her work in translation (at one point Blake’s work is translated from English to Polish, and then of course I’m reading it translated back into English). This is a book where words matter.
I was struck by the friendships that are formed in this book, and the author’s thoughts about what it means to fit in to society and to be left out of it. Janina builds a community in her own way, not the way she’s expected to, and I loved that about her. Just because she’s a recluse doesn’t mean she’s selfish or hates people.
I also love a book that focuses on nature as this one does. Winter, nature, and the animals are very much characters in this story, and they influence everything that happens. As Janina cares for the homes in her area, she’s also caring for the animal communities around her. She doesn’t understand why others aren’t more bothered when animals are mistreated or carelessly slain – and she’s right.
Winter mornings are made of steel; they have a metallic taste and sharp edges. On a Wednesday in January, at seven in the morning, it’s plain to see that the world was not made for Man, and definitely not for his comfort or pleasure.Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk
There’s a lot of discussion of astrology in this book, and occasionally that detracted from the story. Janina’s belief in astrology sets her apart from other people. Tokarczuk builds a theme of personal responsibility versus fate. If events are determined by the planets, are people responsible for what they do?
I found myself wishing, after I finished the book, that I understood more about the work of William Blake, because that’s clearly a very big part of this book (the title and chapter names all come from his poetry). I’m not sure you need that to understand the book, but it certainly would have enhanced my reading experience.
I found quite a few interesting articles about this book and author, but this one interviews the translators of the book.
This is not the kind of book you love, maybe, but it’s clever and humorous and insightful. Tokarczuk weaves together a number of interesting themes and at the same time creates a fascinating character. This book gave my book club plenty to talk about, and it’s the kind of book I appreciate the more I think about it.