Sunday, March 15, 2020

Reading group: Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk

At last, a book everyone present loved (apart, maybe, from John, for the reason I'll reveal below).

Suggested by Doug, it's the first-person narration of Janina Duszejko, a woman of a 'certain age' with a wonderfully unique take on the world. An ex bridge builder turned schoolteacher, she recounts the events when a series of deaths of men, all but the first clearly murders, occurs in the tiny settlement on a windswept Polish plateau where she lives. All of the men who die were hunters, and Duszejko (she hates her first name) is convinced that they have been killed by animals in revenge. Obsessed also with astrology, she calculates that the fates of these men were written in the stars. She sets out to try and convince everyone else including the local police.

Her letters to the police are hilarious - at one point she lists various instances of medieval cases of animals (such as rats) having been indicted for upsetting human affairs. Needless to say, she is dismissed by the police as a nutty old lady, as she well understands:
I could almost hear [the police Commandant's] thoughts - to his mind I was definitely a 'little old lady'   ... 'a silly old bag', 'crazy old crone', or madwoman'.

John's objection was to the long sections devoted to astrology, which he found offputting. Duszejko does in fact, hilariously, say that she knows they would be boring to anyone not interested in astrology, and most of us took that as a cue to skim them, and we didn't mind. The chapters are prefaced with quotes from William Blake, another original and anti-establishment thinker, whose poetry Duszejko and her former pupil Dizzy are translating.

While some people in our group did think Duszejko could be characterised as mad - in a likeable way: Ann called the book 'gloriously bonkers' - so many of her insights and observations are utterly sane: '... the human psyche evolved in order to defend us against seeing the truth'. And it seems to me that the denouement of this novel - as clever as any in the crime genre the book in fact upends - can be considered as showing that she is anything but mad. It would be hard to go into why here without giving the game away. Suffice it to say that we thought the book great - as well as the English translation by Antonia Lloyd-Jones: the English translation of several different attempts by Duszejko and Dizzy to translate a Blake poem into Polish was a tour de force.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here  

No comments: