Drive Your Plough Over the Bones of the Dead

Olga Tokarczuk
Drive Your Plough Over the Bones of the Dead
  • Wydawnictwo Literackie 
    Kraków 2009
    123 × 197
    318 pages
    ISBN 978-83-08-04397-4

Olga Tokarczuk’s new novel has caused a good deal of consternation among Polish readers, for several reasons. Firstly, she has shocked the public by suddenly turning to popular literature, in other words she has chosen the crime genre. Secondly, she has created a narrator and central character in one person that it is hard to regard purely as a medium through whom the author is demonstrating her own view of the world. Thirdly, she has called her novel a “metaphysical thriller”, implying that this is not just a run-of-the-mill flirtation with commercial fiction.
Drive Your Plough Over the Bones of the Dead is the story of Janina Duszejko, a retired engineer, who earns extra money as a teacher. She is a great animal lover, and an even greater admirer of the work of William Blake, whose views she tries to apply to a modern mentality. It is the English poet who “answers” for her philosophy of life. Buried up the ears in his ordered world of Great Values, the woman is unable to come to terms with the wobbly morality of the twenty-first century. So she treats the series of peculiar murders that occur in Kotlina Kłodzka, where the action is set, as a punishment deserved by demoralised people. Tracks found at the crime scenes imply that the perpetrators of the murders could be animals, taking revenge for human cruelty. All the victims were involved in hunting.
Naturally, Tokarczuk does not limit herself to building up an intrigue and offering clues designed to help the reader solve the crime puzzle. She sets her thriller in the superbly depicted real world of provincial Poland. She portrays the society that lives there, contrasting typical local bigwigs with a small band of outsiders headed by Duszejko, resulting in lots of comical effects. As events unfold, the comedy gives way to tragedy, linked with the gradual collapse of the heroine’s personality. For all her unconventionality, she is closer to the tradition of the crime novel than she seems at first sight. What is unconventional in this novel is the top quality language and the original – even by world standards – ecological sub-text.

- Marta Mizuro

Excerpt

We got home late, and in a stew. Matoga didn’t say a word on the return journey. I drove the Samurai via short cuts, down tracks full of potholes, and I enjoyed the way it kept throwing us from door to door as it jumped one puddle after another. We said goodbye with a curt “See you”.
I stood in the dark, empty kitchen and sensed that I was just about to be seized by the same thing as usual – weeping. So I thought it would be best if I stopped thinking and did something. To this end I sat down at the table and wrote the following letter:

To the Police
As I have not received an answer to my previous letter, although according to law every public office in the country is obliged to respond within a period of fourteen days, I am forced to repeat my explanations concerning the recent, highly tragic incidents in our district, and in so doing to present certain observations that cast light on the mysterious deaths of the Police Chief and of Wnętrzak, owner of the fox farm.
Although it looks like an accident while performing the dangerous job of a policeman, or perhaps an unfortunate coincidence, one should ask however if the Police has established: WHAT WAS THE VICTIM DOING AT THAT TIME IN THAT PLACE? Are there any known motives, because to many people, including the undersigned, it seems extremely odd. Moreover, the undersigned was there on the spot, and found (which might be important to the Police) a vast number of Animal tracks, especially the marks of roe deer hooves. It looked as if the deceased had been lured out of his car and led into the undergrowth, beneath which the fatal well was hidden. It is highly possible that the Deer he persecuted inflicted summary justice.
The situation of the next victim looks similar, although it will not be possible to find evidence of tracks after such a long time. However, the dramatic course of events can be explained by the form of his death. Here we have a situation that is easy to imagine, where the victim is enticed into the bushes, into a spot where snares are usually set. There he falls into the trap and is deprived of his life (as to how, that should yet be investigated).
At the same time I wish to appeal to the gentlemen of the Police not to shy away from the very idea that the perpetrators of the above-mentioned tragic incidents might be Animals. I have prepared some information that casts a little light on these matters; for it is a long time since we have had cases of crimes committed by these creatures.
I must start with the Bible, in which it is clearly stated that if an Ox kills a woman or a man, it should be stoned to death. Saint Bernard excommunicated a swarm of Bees, whose buzzing prevented him from working. Bees also had to answer for the death of a Man from Worms in the year 846. The local parliament condemned them to death by suffocation. In 1394 in France some Pigs killed and ate a child. The Sow was sentenced to hang, but her six children were spared, taking their young age into consideration. In 1639 in France, a court in Dijon sentenced a Horse for killing a Man. There have been cases not only of Murder, but also of crimes against nature. Thus in Basel in 1471 there was a lawsuit against a Hen, which laid strangely colourful eggs. It was condemned to death by burning, for being in cahoots with the devil. Here I must add my own comment, that intellectual limitation and human cruelty know no bounds.
The most famous trial took place in France, in 1521. It was the trial of some Rats, which had been causing a lot of destruction. They were summoned to court by the townsfolk and were appointed a public defence counsel, who proved to be a quick-witted lawyer called Bartolomeo Chassenée. When his clients failed to appear at the first hearing, Chassenée petitioned for a deferment, testifying that they lived in great dispersal, on top of which many dangers lay in wait for them on the way to the court. He even appealed to the court to provide a guarantee that Cats belonging to the plaintiffs would not do the defendants any harm on their way to the hearing. Unfortunately, the court could not give such a guarantee, so the case was postponed several times more. Finally, after an ardent speech by their defence counsel, the Rats were acquitted.
In 1659 in Italy the owners of vineyards destroyed by Caterpillars submitted a document to them with a summons to court. Pieces of paper with the wording of the summons were nailed to trees in the area, so the Caterpillars might become acquainted with the indictment.
In citing these recognised historical facts, I demand that my Suppositions and Conjectures be treated seriously. They demonstrate that similar thinking has occurred in European jurisdiction before, and that they can be taken as a precedent.
At the same time I petition for the Deer and other eventual Animal Culprits to go unpunished, because their alleged deed was a reaction to the cruel and soulless conduct of the victims, whom my thorough investigations have shown to be active hunters.
Yours faithfully,
Duszejko

First thing next morning I drove to the post office. I wanted the letter to be sent registered, as then I would have proof of posting. However, it all seemed a little pointless, because the Police station is situated bang opposite the post office, on the other side of the street.
As I emerged, a taxi stopped in front of me and the Dentist leaned out of it. When he drinks, he has himself taken to various places by taxi, spending all the money he will earn from pulling teeth.
“Hey, Mrs Duszeńko,” he cried. He had a red face and the look in his eyes was blurred.
“Duszejko,” I corrected him.
“The day of vengeance is nigh. The regiments of hell are closing in,” he shouted, and waved at me through the window. Then the taxi set off with a squeal of tyres and headed for Kudowa.

Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones