Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk (tr. Antonia Lloyd-Jones)

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There is a man called Oddball in Olga Tokarczuk’s newly translated novel Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead, and the word is quite an apt description of her writing in general. The Man Booker International winning Flights was a conglomeration of things and characters slightly awry, and the same crookedness is visible here too, when an elderly woman, housesitting locals’ summer houses over the winter, gets involved in the investigation of a series of murders occurring in her vicinity. The plot is much more coherent than in its predecessor, and the novel could be broadly categorized as a murder mystery, but, knowing Tokarczuk, it transgresses all generic categorizations. It is a story of an eccentric woman who is frowned upon by men: as she names the men around her according to her own will (one she names Mustachio, for instance), she takes agency over the conventions largely set by the men she deals with in red tape. Her penchant for nomenclature is linked to the other essential theme, animals: Tokarczuk deliberately blurs the dichotomy between people and animals by giving nonhuman creatures/creations names with capital letters. (Her car is a Samurai). While the overarching presence of William Blake feels somehow disconnected from the main story, and although the story’s denouement falls a little flat, Drive Your Plow is a masterful work, as witty, weird, and ingenious as its predecessor, but with an environmentally relevant element added in. Tokarczuk’s sharp observations shine through the protagonist’s various “Theories” such as testosterone autism: “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; testosterone autism disturbs the character’s psychological understanding.” How brilliant, how true!

Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead, 269 pp, is published by Fitzcarraldo Editions in September 2018.

The Language of Birds by Norbert Scheuer (tr. Stephen Brown)

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Inspired by the travels of his ancestor Ambrosius Arimond, and haunted by his own past that is gradually revealed to the reader, Paul works as an army paramedic in Afghanistan. It’s 2003, and he’s surrounded by the atrocities of war. Paul’s coping mechanism amidst the brutality is drawing pictures of local birds: “Many ornithologists photograph the birds they watch. But photographs would make me lose the memory of what I have seen.” These numerous drawings are presented on the pages of The Language of Birds, a fine and short novel by the German author Norbert Scheuer, translated into English by Stephen Brown. In a series of diary entries, Paul logs not only birds but the ever-growing feeling of suffocation working in the spatially restricted container. He wishes to travel to a lake outside the base, and plans an escape route through all the barbed wires, walls, and electronic barriers that populate the text throughout. The imagery of confinement is evidently juxtaposed with the freedom of birds, and results in a beautiful exploration of constraints, freedom, and death. The diary scenes in Afghanistan are interspersed with scenes from Paul’s native Germany, which are a minor source of confusion due to the number of characters in an otherwise succinct novel. A third level consists of Ambrosius Arimond’s letters from the 18th century as he explores the Orient, deepening the theme of enclosures: “In the bazaar I catch sight of birdcages elaborately wrought out of silver wire; tradition tells us that the Mughal emperors had sumptuous aviaries built in their palace gardens.” The Language of Birds is an atmospheric and poignant novel that packs a lot inside its 170 pages. While it may bewilder at first because of multifarious formats (drawings, diary entries, different centuries and countries), it is a thematically coherent whole.

The Language of Birds, 179 pp, is published by Haus Publishing in September 2018.

Concice Reviews is a new series in the HBR that aims to capture what’s most essential in a book in no more than 300 words.

All the Lives We Never Lived by Anuradha Roy

 MacLehose Press, May 2018, 335 pp

MacLehose Press, May 2018, 335 pp

In All the Lives We Never Lived, Anuradha Roy unites the private and the public, the local and the global, the East and the West. The story is set in 1920s’ India, and follows a woman who unexpectedly flees the country with a European man, leaving behind her bewildered husband and son.

The son’s pet name is Myshkin, which goes to show how far Western influence may reach. The name derives from Dostoevsky’s protagonist in The Idiot – my favorite novel by him – here given to the boy protagonist by his grandfather. In these sort of ways, the Occident and the Orient intertwine in every nook and cranny of the novel. To give another example, a real-life German artist, Walter Spies, comes to play a big role over the course of the novel, as he meets the fleeing woman, Gayatri. Germany ends up playing a role on a global scale, as well, with the emergence of Nazi Germany and its disastrous consequences.

Roy also mingles the past with the present with the very outline of her novel: Myshkin is an older man in the present (whose “now” remains, to my disappointment, largely unexplored), reminiscing the past through memories. As a symbol of the link between the past and the present, there are all the letters Gayatri sent to her abandoned son. As the novel progresses, it becomes increasingly epistolary, as her long letters are presented on the page. It is here, in Gayatri’s unmediated words, where All the Lives We Never Lived is at its best, to the detriment of the surrounding sections narrated by Myshkin, who somehow remains a constrained character. I cannot help feeling that were the narrator’s reins given to Gayatri herself, without the construction of Myshkin and the framework of looking back, All the Lives We Never Lived would have become a more vivid story.

Nonetheless, so much of important historical matter is packed into the novel that it would be unfair to dwell merely on the negative aspects. The limited freedom of women in a largely patriarchal culture is explored fantastically here, for one. Of his parents marriage Myshkin has not many positive things to say: “They were like two people stranded on an island with no common language.” This remark is followed by a memory, which also gives life to the novel’s beautiful UK cover (and worthy of quoting in full to give a sense of the subtlety of Roy’s writing):

An incident concerning a paintbox comes back to me. My mother once ordered paints and brushes from a shop in Calcutta, which in turn ordered the goods for her from England. After a long, impatient wait, the paints arrived in a brown paper package tied with twine. The plump new tubes of cobalt blue, viridian green and her favourite, burnt umber, lay newly exposed to the world in a bed of torn paper. My mother admired the perfection of those tubes for several days, picking them up, putting them back into her box of paints, before she could bring herself to twist open one of the lids and squeeze out the first slug of colour.

Then one day my father took those paints with him to his college and put them away – I cannot remember why, perhaps to teach her the difference between hobbies and higher matters. He brought them back after a week, left them on the dining table and walked into the bathroom as if he had done nothing that could be construed a violation. My mother saw her paintbox, dropped what she was doing, and picking it up stalked outside and flung it into a corner of the back garden. The precious tubes and squirrel-hair brushes were strewn far into the undergrowth. “They’re gone for good. Happy?” she shouted at the bathroom’s closed door.

Some weeks later the father brings home a luxurious artbook as a peace offering. This scenario shows the sort of “fragile contentment,” as Myshkin puts it, that holds the family together up to the point of Gayatri’s leaving.

All the Lives We Never Lived contains multitudes, and dives deep into the history of India’s independence. Many real-life figures make an appearance, including the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, Rabindranath Tagore. I’m partially uncertain of the extent to which Roy has wanted to explore real history, and to which extent embellish it with fiction. I acknowledge my own ignorance in the subject matter, and assume that someone more knowledgeable in India and its history may understand, and therefore appreciate, All the Lives We Never Lived more than I managed in the end. But even through the lens of a novice I can clearly see that Anuradha Roy is an accomplished writer who taps into the psychology of her characters with expertise.