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

October 29, 2022 20 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?

Runaway by Alice Munro

October 13, 2015 14 comments

Runaway by Alice Munro (2004) French title : Fugitives. Translated from the Canadian by Jacqueline Huet and Jean-Pierre Carasso.

Munro_FugitivesBefore I start telling you about Runaway, please allow me a little rant. I’m angry at the French publisher. I dare you to find a male Nobel Prize winner with such a pink cover for his books. The reasoning seems to be: it’s written by a woman, about women, therefore it is aimed at a female readership and it deserves a pink cover. I tell you, it is a shame to market a book written by such a remarkable author as it were a book by Sophie Kinsella. I wonder why they didn’t put a cupcake on the cover, the picture would have been complete. Grrr.

End of the rant.

Runaway is a collection of eight short stories, long enough to develop their plot and characters nicely. Each one is around 40 pages long, except for the last one. The short stories included in the collection are: Runaway, Chance, Soon, Silence, Passion, Trespasses, Tricks and Powers.

It is rather difficult to write about short stories. I’ve decided against retelling one or the other but will try to decipher a pattern, a common theme instead. In a nutshell, Alice Munro brushes through the characters’ lives and show them at different times of their existence.

Runaway is the title of the first short story. The French translator chose to call it Fugitives, which means “runaway” but in plural and in the feminine form. So, for a French reader seeing the book on a shelf, it is about runaway women. It’s an interpretation, I wonder if Alice Munro approved of it, but it’s a good assumption. All the characters live moments away from their routine or tell the moment they derailed from their usual days and how it affected their future.

All the main characters are women and in every story, this character has another woman in her shadow, a disquieting presence, someone who seems friendly or loving in appearance but has a negative influence on the character’s course of life. It is a mother, a sister, a daughter, a friend, a neighbor, a housekeeper, a rival or a former rival in her man’s affections. The men in their lives are weak or tasteless. They lack personality, they’re accepting to the point of lacking a backbone. They got into a relationship because it was a thing to be done or because they didn’t want to be lonely. They all fail their partner, voluntarily or not. The passionate ones are on the dark side, they drink or they cheat. The others get sick and trap their wives in a caretaker role or die suddenly.

These women live a linear life and the short stories either reveal how they got there or picture a moment when their life made a detour. They got sidetracked. For example, Robin goes to the theatre in the nearby city once per year and it’s her alone time, stolen moments for herself, away from her ailing sister. They aren’t really unhappy but the reader has the feeling that their lives could have been better. If they had behaved differently. If they hadn’t settled with the wrong man. If they had been more assertive about their wishes, their needs. Most of them were born at a time when women had fewer options in life. Grace thinks, after meeting a lovely and perfectly dressed young woman:

She could not explain or quite understand that it wasn’t altogether jealousy she felt, it was rage. And not because she couldn’t shop or dress like that. It was because that was what girls were supposed to be like. That was what men –people, everybody—thought they should be like. Beautiful, spoiled, selfish, pea-brained. That was what a girl should ben to be fallen in love with.

They were expected to quit their jobs when they got married. University degrees were a means to be where the men with a bright future were. If they stray away from the designated path, they have to face the consequences. Juliet lives with Eric and has a daughter with him. We’re at the end of the 1960s and they’re not married. They live in Whale Bay, in British Columbia. When she visits her family near Toronto, she realizes how much her choice cost to her parents. Her father lost his teaching job. They’re ostracized and they’d rather pick her up at a farther train station than welcome her in their town’s station.

Runaway gives glimpses of the lives of women born before 1950. It is written in a sober tone, the angle shifting from one heroin to the other. I don’t have other quotes to share as I have the book in French. Alice Munro puts her characters on stage, giving a face and a voice to millions of quiet Canadian women. They’re average people, they could be you or me. They don’t live a grand passion, they have a quiet domestic life and yet, they’re unique. I felt like wandering in a cemetery, stopping randomly in front of a grave and listening to someone quietly telling me about the person buried there. Who she was. What happened to her. What event changed her life. It’s a lovely promenade with them.

A big thank you to the friend who gave me Runaway because I’m not sure I would have bought it myself, Nobel Prize or not. It’s been sitting on my shelf and became part of my #TBR20 project.

PS: A word about the #TBR20 project. I’m suffering from withdrawal symptoms: I haven’t bought myself a book in months and I’m itching to visit a bookstore. I’ve managed to refrain by purchasing books as gifts and getting book related items, like bookmarks or a mug with Shakespearian insults on it. *sigh* Still 6 books to go.

 

Fatelessness or Fateless by Imre Kertész

September 30, 2015 33 comments

Fateless or Fatelessness by Imre Kertész (1975) French title: Etre sans destin. (Translated from the Hungarian by Natalia Zaremba-Huszai and Charles Zaremba.)

Il y a dans notre personnalité un domaine, qui, comme je l’ai appris est notre propriété perpétuelle et inaliénable. As I discovered later, there is a place in our personality that forever and inalienably belongs to us.

Fateless or Fatelessness is a novel based upon Imre Kertész’s experience at Buchenwald. I’m not keen on reading books about concentration camps, as I find them hard to bear. Then Caroline picked it up for Literature and War Readalong and I decided it was time to give myself a kick and read it. (Her review is here)

KerteszIt starts like this… I didn’t go to school today. Or rather, I did go but only to ask my class teacher’s permission to take the day off. …and it propelled me to another novel that starts with Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday, I can’t be sure. (The Stranger by Albert Camus) A few short sentences that let you know the narrator’s world is about to change forever but that also set the tone of the narration. It’s not going to be warm; this person is aloof, hard to reach and blunt.

Köves György, the narrator of Fateless is a Jew from Budapest. He’s 15 when the bus he takes to go to work is hijacked and the passengers are sent to Auschwitz. He relates his journey from Budapest to Auschwitz, then to Buchenwald until he comes back to Budapest after the liberation of the camps.

I’ve read two other books by survivors of concentration camps, If This Is a Man by Primo Levi (Auschwitz) and Literature or Life by Jorge Semprún. (Buchenwald). Fateless is an autobiographical novel and the other two are non-fiction. If we set aside the fiction / non-fiction part, the main difference with Fateless is that Levi and Semprún were grown men when they were deported and they were Resistants. They knew they were taking risks, they knew about camps and they knew why the Nazis would go after them.

Here, we have a coming-of-age novel about an adolescent who became a man too fast and in terrible circumstances. The book begins with the deportation of the narrator’s father to labor camp. The narrator is a bit annoyed to be retrieved from school to help with the preparation of his father’s departure. He’s a “normal” adolescent: selfish, interested in girls, unwilling to spend time with his family and not really interested in the news. He’s 15 and everybody wonders who they are at this age but for him, the angst takes another dimension. He’s is an assimilated Jew, doesn’t go to the synagogue, doesn’t speak Yiddish or Hebrew and he doesn’t understand why he’s different from other Hungarian citizens. The Nazis’ intrinsic hatred for Jews puzzles him. He looks at himself and wonders “why?”, “What substance am I made of to be ostracized that way?”

Later, he feels a sense of security when he’s given papers to go out of town and work in a factory. Legit papers seemed a good protection. But the whole bus full of Jews is taken by the Hungarian authorities in the summer 1944 and he’s shipped to Auschwitz. He relates the time spent in Budapest, waiting for their destination, the trip on the train without water, the arrival in Auschwitz, all the procedures he went through. Then he’s sent to Zeitz and eventually to Buchenwald.

The most unsettling thing about the novel is the narrator’s ignorance. He’s just a Jewish boy who doesn’t know much about Jewish religion, about the world. He definitely doesn’t know anything about concentration camps. At first, he’s even a bit excited about his adventure, until he gets to Auschwitz and he is enlightened by other prisoners about the workings of the camp and the gas chambers.

He relates the process to sort out the prisoners, the meticulous, well-oiled process. He goes through the motions and tells candidly what he sees, what he does, how his body is rapidly disintegrating under the harshness of the living conditions. His naiveté is baffling for the reader who knows better and reads between the lines. It emphasizes the horror of the camp. György’s descriptions show how the camps were so perfectly ruled, like efficient death factories. Sometimes he gives a full description of the bucolic countryside around the camps and the reader’s feeling of horror moves up another notch. The rampant question is always the same: How? How could this happen at this scale with this thorough and cold blooded savagery?

His tone is detached, focused on material things (food, clothes, showers, sleep). He’s reverted to basic needs. His detachment and his focusing on surviving take all his strength and willpower. He goes by, one day after the other, one step after the other.

C’est seulement à Zeitz que j’ai compris que la captivité a aussi ses jours ordinaires, et même que la véritable captivité se compose en fait exclusivement de grisaille quotidienne. It is only in Zeitz that I understood that captivity also has its ordinary days, and even that real captivity is exclusively made of the greyness of the quotidian.

Everything seems absurd and he goes with the flow. He’s not very likeable because his dehumanization seeps through his narration. The whole novel bathes in absurdity. I’ve read it’s a bit like The Castle by Kafka. It certainly is for the sheer absurdity of bureaucracy, for the blind and incomprehensible hatred for Jews. The narrator tries to understand what’s happening around him but he doesn’t get it. The absurdity is so total that the most surreal things seem natural. The more the book progresses, the more he punctuates his sentences with naturally. As if the most horrific things were natural in camps, and if course, they were as they had become the new normality. The difference of understanding between the boy and the reader enforces this impression of absurdity. And absurdity brings me back to Camus.

A word about the title. In English, it’s been translated as Fateless or Fatelessness. In French, it is Etre sans destin, which means To be fateless and A being without a fate. And György is both. His fate is ripped away from him.

J’essayais de regarder vers l’avant, mais l’horizon se limitait au lendemain, et le lendemain était le même jour, c’est-à-dire encore un jour parfaitement identique, dans le meilleur des cas, bien sûr. I tried to look forward but the horizon was limited to tomorrow and tomorrow was the same day, that is to say another perfectly identical day, in the best case scenario, of course.

While in Buchenwald, he can’t imagine his future, he doesn’t have one anymore. And when he comes home, the future he had no longer exists. This former fate has been taken from him. He can’t erase what happened to him, it shaped him into someone else, he can’t resume his former life and he doesn’t know what his new fate is. He’s fateless, left to face his fatelessness.

But for me, this fatelessness also refers to something else.

Wikipedia mentions that “Between 15 May and 9 July [1944], Hungarian authorities deported 437,402 Jews. All but 15,000 of these Jews were sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau, and 90% of those were immediately killed. One in three of all Jews killed at Auschwitz were Hungarian citizens.” György’s (and Kertész’s) survival is a miracle. His fate is sealed by chance. (Same thing for Levi and Semprún). When he arrives in Auschwitz, another prisoner makes him understand he needs to lie about his age and say he’s 16. He doesn’t know why but instinctively follows the advice. It saves his life. In Buchenwald, he ends up in the hospital and it saves his life too. At the beginning, one of the characters caught on the bus on the way to the factory keeps saying that he was going to see his mother, that he almost missed the bus, that he wouldn’t have been there if he had missed that bus and decided to go home instead of giving it a chance and try to catch it. Back to Camus again. Life is unpredictable. The events flow randomly and fate is against us. He ended up in Buchenwald but he could have escaped it or ended up in the Danube like other Jews from Budapest.

S’il y a un destin, la liberté n’est pas possible ; si, au contraire, ai-je poursuivi de plus en plus surpris et me piquant au jeu, si la liberté existe, alors il n’y a pas de destin, c’est-à-dire—je me suis interrompu, mais juste le temps de reprendre mon souffle—c’est-à-dire qu’alors nous sommes nous-mêmes le destin : c’est ce qu’à cet instant-là j’ai compris plus clairement que jamais. If there is a fate, then liberty isn’t possible. If, on the contrary, I said, more and more surprised and getting into it, if liberty exists, then there is no fate. That is to say—I stopped, just long enough to catch my breath—that is to say we are fate ourselves. That’s what I understood at that moment, with the greatest clarity.

Yes fate doesn’t exist or more exactly what we think as fate is a succession of tiny decisions, barely conscious sometimes, that change our route, our life. Even in this barbaric, dictatorial steamroller that what the organization of the Holocaust, the narrator did make decisions that changed his life, like lying about his age. As all of us, the narrator is fateless, his future is not determined by any superior being.

Here’s another review by Lisa.

DSC_1170Memorial of the Jews who were killed and thrown into the Danube during WWII in Budapest.

I’ve read a book by Modiano

December 6, 2014 40 comments

Dimanches d’août by Patrick Modiano (1986) Not available in English. (yet)

Modiano_DimanchesSo Patrick Modiano won the Nobel Prize in literature this year. It was as surprising as having a French laureate for the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences. I had never read Modiano because of the image I had of him. I imagined his books as boring ramblings of white men distressed by their middle age crisis, tortured and endlessly looking for the perfect woman that doesn’t exist. I looked at his books in bookstores, read the blurb and put them down. Several times.

When he won the Nobel Prize I sort of saw it as my duty as a French book blogger in the English speaking blogosphere to at least try a book by him and see. Therefore I took my wary self to a book store and bought a Modiano. The one I knew about, Rue des boutiques obscures, was not on the shelves. I discarded Place de l’Etoile because it was –again—about Paris during the Occupation and I’m sick of reading about WWII. I asked for help to the libraire, who had not read Modiano either. Some libraire he was. After reading several blurbs I picked Dimanches d’août.

We’re in Nice in the 1980s. The narrator, Jean stumbles upon an old acquaintance, Villecourt on the boulevard Gambetta. The two men are not so pleased to meet again. They have a Sylvia in common, they both come from somewhere on the banks of the Marne near Paris. It is soon very clear that Sylvia is gone, that she and Jean fled to Nice, that Villecourt used to be her lover or husband. Seeing Villecourt again will decide Jean to relate what happened. At once, the reader feels that something went wrong, that this story goes beyond the usual love triangle. This comes from the diamond that Sylvia had. It is named Croix du Sud and part of the mystery is linked to it.

In a classic Noir tale, the narrator is in a bad place –Jean ran aground in Nice and now wanders there like a broken soul—and he starts telling his story from the beginning. The reader follows how he ended up where he is. Here, Jean goes backward. From one detail to the other, we will rewind the moments and events from Nice to the banks of the Marne where it all began.

So, the verdict? Bof, as we say in French. You can’t judge a writer by one book but I wasn’t thrilled. Before reading Modiano, when I heard his name, it conveyed the image of a solitary man walking on a deserted beach in Normandy, wearing a beige wool jumper. This novel was set in Nice and the man was wandering on the Promenade des Anglais but the impression remains.

Sure, he pictures Nice and the French Riviera with talent. The story is well crafted but rather classic and I guessed part of the ending which is not a good sign. He writes well but he’s no Albert Camus or J.M.G. Le Clézio. I have only two quotes for a book of 190 pages. I had more from the 50 pages I’ve read of At Swim-Two-Birds! Still, here’s a sample:

Je me suis approché d’elle et bientôt son parfum était plus fort que l’odeur de la chambre, un parfum lourd dont je ne pouvais plus me passer, quelque chose de doux et de ténébreux, comme les liens qui nous attachaient l’un à l’autre.

I went close to her and soon her perfume was stronger that the smell of the room. It was a heavy perfume I couldn’t live without, something sweet and dark, as the bond that tied us to each other. (my translation)

Lots of writers are as good as this, no? I expect from a Nobel Prize winner to be innovative, to bring something new to literature, to have a style that looks like no one else’s. I’d like to know what prompted the Nobel Jury to grant him such a prestigious prize because after reading Dimanches d’août, I can’t figure it out. A Nobel Prize winner should let me wide eyed and mouth hanging from admiration. Next time maybe?

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