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.