NOVEMBER 15, 2019
THE PROTAGONIST AND NARRATOR of Olga Tokarczuk’s latest novel to appear in English, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, is a mildly misanthropic old woman by the name of Janina. She lives alone in Poland’s Kłodzko Valley, on the border with the Czech Republic. A retired bridge-construction engineer, she teaches English and manages people’s holiday homes for a bit of extra cash. Her side projects include collaborating with a friend on translations of Blake and compiling an enormous astrology database, “without funding from the European Union,” as she pointedly tells us. She gives all her acquaintances funny nicknames: Good News, Dizzy, Oddball, Big Foot.
She is a vegetarian, of the slightly militant bent that vegetarians of her generation tend to be. She refers to deer as “Young Ladies,” and when she sees the novel’s first victim, a poacher who has choked on a shard of bone from a deer he killed, she is filled with elemental horror:
He had caught the Deer in a snare, killed her, then butchered, roasted and eaten her body. One Creature had devoured another in the silence and stillness of the Night. Nobody had protested, no thunderbolt had struck. And yet Punishment had come upon the devil …
What follows is a whodunit that flirts with farce and flits into polemic at times. Having decided that the corpse is inadequately dressed to meet its maker, Janina and her neighbor Oddball decide to put the man in his best suit, “coffee-coloured […], slightly stained.” They heave it onto a sofa and arrange it to look moderately peaceful. When the police arrive, one of the officers is Oddball’s son, and a comic interlude ensues wherein the son chastises the father for tampering with evidence.
Over the better part of a year, the bodies start to pile up. One man is found fallen headfirst down a well; another’s remains are in a sorry state after being exposed to the elements for weeks in an old clay mine. A third is consumed by wood-boring beetles; yet another burns to death. Convinced by deer tracks she saw in the snow at one crime scene and by two foxes she glimpsed from her car, Janina tries to make the case, increasingly feverishly and to the concern of her few friends, that animals are responsible for the killings, exacting revenge on the humans who prey upon and exploit them. The “dead” of the novel’s title refers to animals, not human beings, and the outrage it denotes at the disrespect toward animal life occasions some strident rhetoric:
What sort of a world is this? Someone’s body is made into shoes, into meatballs, sausages, a bedside rug, someone’s bones are boiled to make broth … Shoes, sofas, a shoulder bag made from someone’s belly, keeping warm with someone else’s fur, eating someone’s body, cutting it into bits and frying it in oil … Can it really be true? Is this nightmare really happening? This mass killing, cruel, impassive, automatic, without any pangs of conscience, without the slightest pause for thought, though plenty of thought is applied to ingenious philosophies and theologies. What sort of a world is this, where killing and pain are the norm? What on earth is wrong with us?
This prompts the standard retort: that old women become obsessed with animal welfare because they have nothing else to care for. Maybe they have a few spoiled dogs or get overinvested in local politics. Indeed, Janina had two dogs that she referred to as her “Little Girls,” whose deaths she still grieves acutely, and she also sends long letters to the police, arguing her case. In one, the comic crown jewel of the novel, she enumerates historical examples of animals being charged for crimes: “Saint Bernard excommunicated a swarm of Bees, whose buzzing prevented him from working. […] 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.” These letters — along with Janina’s treatise on the ideological ills of societies that dismember, skin, and devour their animals — form the main hinges of the novel.
Janina’s impassioned and polemical turning of the tables on industrialized farming — “concentration camps,” she calls them — feels overdone, and one wonders at her neglect of the vegan issue (i.e., the imprisonment of female animals to capture their secretions). Then again, this Polish novel cannot be blamed for falling a little flat in the Anglophone context, where the discourse around vegetarianism has shifted away from animal welfare toward concerns about the long-term survival of the planet. Vegetarianism in the United Kingdom is now the preserve of yuppies and their let-them-have-oat-milk, New Yorker–tote-toting metropolitanism. They still want their spicy Korean chicken, though they are willing to put it in the “rare treat” category, and will cast aspersions on anyone who can eat a steak with a clear conscience. Gone is the ham-fisted veggieism of yesteryear, with its insistence on rattling off facts from Fast Food Nation.
Finely executed dark humor abounds, some of it very funny indeed. Janina informs us that, “[w]ith age, many men come down with testosterone autism,” the symptoms of which are gradual decline in social intelligence and capacity for interpersonal communication, as well as a reduced ability to formulate thoughts. “The Person beset by this ailment becomes taciturn and appears to be lost in contemplation. 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.”
Throughout the novel, nouns are capitalized seemingly at random, an eccentricity that feels needlessly ornamental. There are glib philosophical observations in the same vein as Tokarczuk’s previous novel, Flights (2007), the English translation of which (by Jennifer Croft) won the International Man Booker Prize in 2018 (Tokarczuk’s oeuvre has, of course, also just been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, commended by the committee for its “wit and cunning”). “As I gazed at the black-and-white landscape of the Plateau,” Janina muses, “I realised that sorrow is an important word for defining the world. It lies at the foundations of everything, it is the fifth element, the quintessence.” More sophisticated is her appreciation of a weather report’s breakdown of effects concerning skiers, drivers, and allergy sufferers:
I find this division of people into three groups […] very convincing. […] Skiers are hedonists. They are carried down the slopes. Whereas drivers prefer to take their fate in their hands, although their spines often suffer as a result; we all know life is hard. Whereas the allergy sufferers are always at war.
The farce accelerates, culminating in a climactic scene at a mushroom pickers’ ball, where Janina — dressed as a wolf — comforts the soon-to-be-widowed president’s wife with a stroke of her paw. She makes mustard soup for her friends, who express concern at her fixation on the murders. Then they accuse her of being the murderer herself, and — bingo! — she is. It’s Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd but with the final revelation landing with a dull thud. Not only does Janina believe she is the animals’ “Instrument,” but she is exacting a personal revenge on the community of poachers and hunters, one of whom killed her dogs.
Drive Your Plow arrives in the Anglosphere after the dust has settled on other parodic takes on the subject, such as the BBC mockumentary Carnage (2017), which imagined a future where our meat-eating present is configured in the same terms as the Holocaust, with an attendant cast of deniers and atoning enablers. Polemics such as these are funny but also self-undermining. In our cultural context, the vengeful vegetarian has become a tired stock figure — more so as the UK government begins to take seriously calls from the United Nations for transitions to “plant-based” diets, in order to assure the long-term survival of the planet. Janina’s philosophical musings and astrological explaining muddle the pacing of the plot, turning the whodunit into a backdrop, but not enough to achieve the elevated reverie of Flights. The novel is, in short, a bit of a drag, but what it lacks in suspense and zeitgeist factor, it makes up for with bleak humor.
Stephanie Sy-Quia is a freelance critic and writer based in London. Her writing has appeared in The FT Weekend Magazine, The Spectator, Monocle, The i, and others. In 2018, she was shortlisted for the FT Bodley Head essay prize. She is a Ledbury Emerging Poetry Critic.