Home > 2010, 21st Century, Novel, Polish Literature, Tokarczuk Olga > Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk – Thanks, Bénédicte!

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk – Thanks, Bénédicte!

October 29, 2022 Leave a comment Go to comments

Drive You Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk (2010) French title: Sur les ossements des morts. Translated by Margot Carlier.

The other day, Arti left a lovely comment on my post about Time Regained, thanking me for my Proust billets because they prodded him into finishing In Search of Lost Time. I could deliver the same message to Bénédicte, from Passage à L’Est, for prodding me into doing her Olga Tokarczuk Lecture Commune (French for readalong).

I was worried about finding another Herta Müller in Tokarczuk and I’m happy to report that I was wrong and that I loved Drive You Plow Over the Bones of the Dead.

The narrator is Janina, an old spinster that people see as eccentric and dismiss as a nutcase. She’s sick, suffers from several chronic diseases but still walks around in the woods that surround her house on an isolated Polish plateau near the Czech border. She’s quite resourceful, considering her age and her condition. Stronger than she seems, even.

She’s rebellious, an animal lover who is outraged when animals are poorly treated. She hates hunting and poaching with fierceness. She reports crimes against animals to the police, writes letters which are promptly dismissed as coming from a crazy old lady. At the police station, they indulge her rants out of politeness but in their eyes, Janina has two major flaws: she’s old and she’s female.

She only has two neighbors who live all year long on the plateau and she nicknamed them Oddball and Big Foot. While Oddball is neat, Big Foot is dirty, untidy and a poacher. So, when Oddball wakes her up at night because he found Big Foot dead in his house, she’s not happy to go out and tidy thing up before the police comes.

That’s the first death. Others will follow, leading to police investigations.

It’s an odd and fascinating novel. It strays from the plot along with Janina’s thought process and yet remains on track as far as the murder investigations are concerned. Our narrator enrolls Dizzy and Oddball in investigating these deaths.

Meanwhile, we learn about Janina, her quirks and her life. I loved spending time with Janina as she’s so funny. She’s unconventional, always thinking out of the box, exercising her critical mind, describing her village, her country and the evolution of mores.

Janina doesn’t like her name and thus thinks nobody has the name they should have – hence the nicknames she gives to everyone around her. She’s obsessed with horoscopes and peppers her narration with bits like this one:

“He generally doesn’t say much. He must have Mercury in a reticent sign, I reckon it’s in Capricorn or on the cusp, in square opposition to Saturn. It could also be Mercury in retrograde—that produces reserve.”

It went all over my head but I suppose that if someone tells you this with enough conviction, you’ll either believe them or think they’re crazy. Janina is convinced that all things in the world are arranged under a grand scheme that can be deciphered through astrology.

She goes to the village from time to time, especially to teach English to pupils at the elementary school. Her lessons are …err…unconventional. She kept in touch with a former student, Dizzy, who comes to see her once a week to chat and work on his translation of William Drake’s poems.

The teaching is one of her sources of income, the other one is watching the summer houses on the plateau during winter. She’s like a concierge. People know her. As long as you don’t hurt animals, she’ll welcome you into her house and share what she has with you. She draws people to her, making up a new family.

Janina is an unreliable narrator because she sees life through her own unusual lenses. She believes that animals are taking revenge and that the Deer killed Big Foot to punish him for hunting and poaching.

On top of the mysterious deaths, the everyday life of the village and the construction of an odd family around Janina, Drive You Plow Over the Bones of the Dead is a philosophical novel. Janina muses over the meaning of life and the essence of the human condition. Her reflections about our need to classify things and actions two categories, “useful” or “useless” are spot on. Who decided who and what fits in each category and why useful is considered better as useless? Fascinating question.

Drive You Plow Over the Bones of the Dead is full of random questioning that challenge our way of thinking, all done through Janina’s offhanded comments and vision of the world. It’s deep without weighing on the reader. It’s not a lesson but you still make a pause on the page and think a little bit.

It also has a fairytale vibe due to the woods, the hunters, the deer and the mysterious deaths. It brings back Grimm and Perrault, something I’m not usually fond of. But here, Tokarczuk manages to mesh these dreamlike elements with reality. She does it masterfully.

I’ll end this billet with a word about translations.

I’ve read this novel in French and downloaded the kindle sample of the English translation by Antonia Lloyd-Jones. It helped me find out what the nicknames were in English. Grand Pied became Big Foot, which I could have guessed but I have no clue how Matoga turned into Oddball.

I also noticed from the sample, that the English translation often has words in capital letters, something that isn’t included in the French translation. See:

A ce moment précis, la personne au téléphone se mit à débiter un tel flot de paroles que Matoga écarta le portable de son oreille en lui jetant un œil dégoûté. Puis nous avons appelé la police.Then the Person at the other end started gabbling at length, so Oddball held the phone away from his ear, casting it a look of distaste. Then we called the Police.

See how person and police have capital letters in the English translation and not in the French one? I wonder how it is in the original.

And have you seen the variety of covers?

I think that the Dutch one is very creepy. The French one conveys the dreamlike elements but totally neglects the fun of Janina’s mind. The English one is puzzling. The Polish one would be better with a deer on it as this animal is central in the book.

I love the Portuguese cover. It would have drawn be to the book if I’d seen it in a bookstore. It’s intriguing.

For other reviews, see Jacqui’s, Ali’s and Marina’s.

I had a wonderful time with Drive You Plow Over the Bones of the Dead and it will probably make my best-of-the-year list.

Which Olga Tokarczuk should I read next?

  1. October 29, 2022 at 1:45 pm

    It’s great, isn’t it Emma! I read it in the English and loved it. As for the capital letters, I don’t know if they are there in the original, but they certainly added a little quirkiness to the narrative. The only other one of her books I’ve read is Flights, which is very different but I thought equally brilliant!


    • October 29, 2022 at 7:54 pm

      It is really excellent.
      Thanks for the recommendation, I’ll look it up.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. October 29, 2022 at 4:32 pm

    Ah, this is one I’ve been meaning to read, so thanks for the great billet and the reminder, Emma! It sounds wonderful. It’s interesting that the covers are so different. The Portuguese one seems like an outlier in its playfulness—the others look more like horror novels, and the English one is like a ransom note!

    I also found it interesting that the French title omitted the driving of the plough. And by the way, what’s the difference between “ossements” and the word I know for bones, “os”?


    • October 29, 2022 at 4:40 pm

      I didn’t see the ransom note in the English cover, that’s a good idea.
      I don’t speak Portuguese but the title also seems without the plough.
      Is the English title a reference to William Blake? I don’t know his poetry.

      Ossements are the bones of skeleton after a person died and the flesh is gone.
      Os is for living people or meat (like the bones you give to a dog to chew)


  3. October 30, 2022 at 2:42 am

    Olga Tokarczuk is one of my favorite writers working right now, and this book is a particular pleasure with the words and ideas of William Blake woven though it.


    • November 1, 2022 at 8:31 am

      It’s a pleasure but I think I missed out on the William Blake references. I only know him by name.


  4. October 30, 2022 at 1:09 pm

    I’m still gearing myself up to read The Books of Jacob (maybe over the winter?), but I have to say I do love Tokarczuk’s work. Each book is very different. Yes, the title is a quote from William Blake – although only a partial quote. The full quote is ‘Drive your cart and plow over the bones of the dead’ and it’s probably significant that Janina and her friend Dizzy might be busy translating Blake, but they are actually perhaps only partially understanding or interpreting him.


    • October 31, 2022 at 2:46 pm

      Yea, I want to read Jacob too and my copy is on the bookshelf waiting for me. But when I’ll get to I have no idea. The size is a bit daunting.

      Liked by 1 person

      • November 1, 2022 at 8:38 am

        I’m not ready for this one; it’s too long.


    • November 1, 2022 at 8:38 am

      Thanks for the explanation about the title. I assume it was linked to Blake but wasn’t sure.

      Janina and Dizzy make of Blake what they can and yes, they don’t understand everything. Poetry is the hardest thing to read in another language and English isn’t their native language. They find what they need in Blake’s poetry and that’s also a good “use” (for lack of a better word) of literature. I like to think of literature as anyone’s personal friend, healer, crutch, shrink or simply source of joy.

      I’m not ready for The Book of Jacob; like Max, I find its size daunting. (I tend to shy away from thick books)


      • November 1, 2022 at 10:14 am

        I think most long books could be cut by at least 30% with no loss to understanding or reading pleasure, but am currently reading another chunkster Solenoid by Mircea Cartarescu (which I’ve managed to avoid for years), so maybe I’m preparing for hibernation.


        • November 1, 2022 at 4:54 pm

          I agree with the 30% cut, especially in crime fiction. Writing short and striking books is the mark of a good writer.

          Liked by 1 person

      • November 1, 2022 at 10:16 am

        And I also agree about finding your own personal friend in literature, especially in poetry. I used to ‘read’ some poetry in Italian or Spanish, thinking I understood it, but when I read the actual translations, I realised I got it quite wrong. Never mind!


        • November 1, 2022 at 4:55 pm

          It’s the same for me with poetry in English. The rythm, the poetry rules, the pronounciation, it all flies by me. Bilingual editions are great, I have one of Shakespeare’s Sonnets and it’s a good compromise.


  5. October 30, 2022 at 1:24 pm

    I’m so glad you enjoyed this first meeting with Olga Tokarczuk! I hadn’t realised you had classified her alongside Herta Müller (you should give her another chance one day).
    I haven’t read this one yet, but I will get round to it one day. I too recommend Flights (in French Les pérégrins, which I reviewed for the readalong).
    Did you know that Drive your plough… is being brought to the stage? https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2022/oct/24/drive-your-plow-over-the-bones-of-the-dead-complicite-simon-mcburney-olga-tokarczuk

    Liked by 1 person

    • November 1, 2022 at 8:40 am

      I’ll have a look at Les pérégrins.

      I didn’t know they were making Drive your plough into a play. Is that in France? I wonder how this will work, with all the walking and driving around.

      Thanks for pushing me to read her, it’s was worth it.


  6. October 31, 2022 at 2:41 pm

    I really liked her Flights (I think it was my book of the year in fact), but I loved this. Janina is such a great character as you say, there’s that interesting blend of crime and philosophy and it’s often very funny, not least with her astrological analyses which like you I found quite incomprehensible.

    The French cover I think is good, the Polish doesn’t really say anything, the Dutch I think is too creepy making it look like horror, the Portuguese somehow does capture something of it. Interesting to compare them.


    • November 1, 2022 at 8:45 am

      A another recommendation for Flights (Les pérégrins in French), I’ll look it up.

      Whenever I read a book with multiple layers and allying deep thinking and a light thread, I check out various covers. It’s interesting to see what covers publisher choose.
      I like the French one and the Portuguese one. I usually prefer French covers, which only means that marketing guys are good at their job. They find the right cover for their target!
      American covers are sometimes so off-the-mark that I wonder if the person who approved of the cover had any idea of the content of the book.


  7. November 5, 2022 at 2:11 pm

    I loved this too, having only read Flights by her before which I also enjoyed. They’re so different though.

    I quite like the creepy Dutch cover, it has that unsettling feeling I remember from the novel. The English translation I read was a Fitzcarraldo edition, so it was one of their plain blue covers – it’s really interesting to see the different artwork used.


    • November 5, 2022 at 9:36 pm

      I’ll remember Flights as another one to read.
      It’s exactly the kind of book that will have very different covers according to the publisher. I like plain covers, at least you open the book without a filter coming from the illustration on the cover.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. January 1, 2023 at 5:02 pm
  2. January 10, 2023 at 8:08 pm
  3. January 12, 2023 at 8:03 am

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