“The cosmic Catastrophe”: Olga Tokarczuk, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead

tokarczukIt’s clear that the largest things are contained in the smallest. There can be no doubt about it. At this very moment, as I write, there’s a planetary configuration on this table, the entire Cosmos if you like: a thermometer, a coin, an aluminum spoon and a porcelain cup. A key, a cell phone, a piece of paper, and a pen. And one of my gray hairs, whose atoms preserve the memory of the origins of life, of the cosmic Catastrophe that gave the world its beginning.

Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead is a pretty strange novel. Or maybe it just has a pretty strange narrator. What would be the difference, really? It has the structure of a whodunit, but without quite the same clarity of purpose, as it also has–or its narrator Janina also has–a tendency to tip over from the literal into the metaphysical, from the gruesome to the lyrical, from the mundane to the cosmic. And yet all the things about the story Janina tells that seem to make no sense (that seem to blur the lines between magic and reality, as if we were in that kind of fictional world) turn out to make perfect sense: with the neatness of a Sherlock Holmes story, all of the novel’s impossibilities are resolved without recourse to the fantastical after all.

That doesn’t mean Tokarczuk doesn’t leave us things to puzzle over, however. It’s just that they aren’t questions about who did what, or even why: they are questions about what we should think about it all. Here Janina–eccentric, fanatical, pragmatic, occasionally poetic–is a provocative and informative but not very reliable guide. Most of the local officials she encounters concludes she is “a nutter.” They aren’t wrong, but they also aren’t quite right. At least, I don’t think so! Because she tells us the story, Janina has a lot of opportunities to show us the world as she sees it, and while it’s an odd perspective (for instance, she believes completely in the interpretive and predictive power of astrology and appeals constantly to the wisdom of William Blake–not, himself, perhaps the most straightforward guide to the meaning of life) there’s something convincing about it too.

driveJanina’s main idiosyncrasy is that (as the people around her often protest) she cares more for animals than for people.  She is particularly outraged by hunters and their hypocritical justifications for what, to her, is simply murder, and often barbarous murder, at that. “Just look at the way those pulpits work,” she exclaims to the officers taking her statement about a body that turns up in the remote mountainous region where she lives–in this case, a wild boar, though the deaths the police are actually concerned about are the human ones. “It’s evil–you have to call it by its proper name,” she goes on:

it’s cunning, treacherous, sophisticated evil–they build hay racks, scatter fresh apples and wheat to lure Animals there, and once the Creatures have become habituated, they shoot them in the head from their hiding place, from a pulpit.

Later, at the consecration of a church dedicated to Saint Hubert, the patron saint of hunting, she is outraged by the sermon, by the priest’s ardent advocacy for “the customs and traditions of hunting.” “Now it seemed clear to me,” she observes,

why those hunting towers, which do after all bear a strong resemblance to the watchtowers in concentration camps, are called ‘pulpits.’ In a pulpit Man places himself above other Creatures and grants himself the right to their life and death. He becomes a tyrant and a usurper.

“Murderers!” she exclaims, as her protests lead to her removal from the church. “How can you listen to such nonsense without batting an eyelid? Have you lost your minds? Or your hearts? Have you still got hearts?”

tokarczuk_prowadz_2015_mJanina abhors the indignity and suffering humans inflict on animals: “People have a duty towards Animals,” she says, “to lead them–in successive lives–to Liberation. We’re all traveling in the same direction, from dependence to freedom, from ritual to free choice.” It appalls her that other people can go about their business indifferent, or worse–“What sort of a world is this, where killing and pain are the norm? What on earth is wrong with us?” When she proposes that the mysterious deaths in her neighborhood are actually animals exacting retribution, her theory seems at once bizarre and, coming from her, perfectly reasonable. In support of her allegations, after all, she can cite historical cases in which animals were charged with crimes and even put on trial. Who are we to be so sure animals–smarter than we are, or than we give them credit for, in so many ways–aren’t astute enough to get their revenge on the worst offenders among us?

As the bodies pile up and theories and suspicions proliferate, Janina draws us into her small circle of allies against the inanity and inhumanity of life. One of her quirks is giving people names that sum up their characters–Big Foot, Oddball, Good News. Her interactions with her friends are often lightly comical (my favorite interlude was the Mushroom Pickers Ball), and the loyalty they eventually show to her is unexpectedly touching. Looking around the table at them near the end of the novel, she thinks

we were the sort of people whom the world regards as useless. We do nothing essential, we don’t produce important ideas, no vital objects or foodstuffs, we don’t cultivate the land, we don’t fuel the economy … So far we’ve never provided the world with anything useful. We haven’t come up with the idea for any invention. We have no power, we have no resources apart from our small properties. We do our jobs, but they are of no significance for anyone else. If we went missing, nothing would really change. Nobody would notice.

And then, overcome as she frequently is with emotion so strong it makes her weep, she fights back against that verdict:

But why should we have to be useful and for what reason Who divided the world into useless and useful, and by what right? Does a thistle have no right to life, or a Mouse that eats the grain in a warehouse? What about the Bees and Drones, weeds and roses? Whose intellect can have had the audacity to judge who is better, and who is worse? A large tree, crooked and full of holes, survives for centuries without being cut down, because nothing could possibly be made out of it. This example should raise the spirits of people like us. Everyone knows the profits to be reaped from the useful, but nobody knows the benefit to be gained from the useless.

blakeShe and her former student Dizzy share a preoccupation with Blake, and as I read the novel I wished I knew enough about him to see how much Tokarczuk is invoking his ideas. Her title is from the Proverbs of Hell, from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell:

In seed time learn, in harvest teach, in winter enjoy.
Drive your cart and your plow over the bones of the dead.
The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.
Prudence is a rich ugly old maid courted by Incapacity.
He who desires but acts not, breeds pestilence.

I don’t know how much of Janina’s way of looking at the world or being in the world is specifically connected to Blake–or, for that matter, whether there is any connection between Blake and astrology. For me, the riffs on signs and planets and horoscopes were the least compelling parts of the novel, even though they are centrally important to Janina’s world view. Sometimes, though, in spite of my disbelief, they too became compelling, poetic, even profound:

I wondered whether the stars can see us. And if they can, what might they think of us? Do they really know our future? Do they feel sorry for us? For being stuck in the present time, with no chance to move? But it also crossed my mind that in spite of it all, in spite of our fragility and ignorance, we have an incredible advantage over the stars–it is for us that time works, giving us a major opportunity to transform the suffering, aching world into a happy and peaceful one. It’s the stars that are imprisoned in their own power, and they cannot really help us. They merely design the nets, and on cosmic looms they weave the warp thread that we must complete with our own weft.

I don’t believe even for a minute in the explanatory value of astrology, but for Janina it is way of organizing and coping with the complications of life. We all need something to do that for us, especially if, like her, we are sensitive to the suffering around us. One of her theories is that the human psyche itself protects us by blocking out the truth:

Its main task is to filter information, even though the capabilities of our brains are enormous. For it would be impossible to carry the weight of this knowledge. Because every tiny particle of the world is made of suffering.

Perhaps, in addition to Blake, she (and Tokarczuk) have been reading Middlemarch:

If we had a keen vision of all that is ordinary in human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow or the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which is the other side of silence.

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead is about someone who reacts to the perception of universal suffering by seeking justice, not sympathy. The surprise of the novel is that someone so odd, crusty, and uncompromising turns out to be so appealing. I enjoyed her abrasiveness, her frankness about her aches and pains, her determination to live on her own terms.

Tokarczuk_okladka.cdrBy making Janina the narrator, Tokarczuk sets the novel up to test us about just how far we will go along with her: for all her wit and principle–really, because of them–she is quite a problematic character, especially if we take her at her own word about the logic of everything that happens. But what is a reasonable response to all the things we see around us, after all, or to all the things we know are going on but try not to face? “You know what,” Janina’s neighbor the Writer says to her,

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.

Janina’s version is pretty strange, but by the end of Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead we understand very clearly what’s good and what isn’t in her world, and this lets Tokarczuk wrap up her eccentric whodunit so that, at least according to the “map of meaning” it has established, the punishment fits the crime in a morally and philosophically satisfying way.

3 thoughts on ““The cosmic Catastrophe”: Olga Tokarczuk, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead

  1. Jeanne February 14, 2020 / 11:15 am

    I just finished reading this last night and was thinking about what to say about it this morning when your review popped up in my email. My response to the novel seems much in line with yours, but that’s odd to say, because when I read your line “The surprise of the novel is that someone so odd, crusty, and uncompromising turns out to be so appealing” I was expecting the word “appalling.” She is both–the initial appeal is why I found her so appalling!

    • Rohan Maitzen February 14, 2020 / 11:23 am

      Ha! I agree, she is both; I struggled to figure out which way to tilt my comments, especially as I was trying (perhaps unsuccessfully) to be a bit coy about the specifics of the plot!

      • Jeanne February 14, 2020 / 2:34 pm

        My own review is now posted, and I was glad to have yours to refer to about the astrology part, as you are less dismissive of it than I am.

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