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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?

Three short stories from Bacacay by Witold Gombrowicz

May 12, 2017 15 comments

Three Short Stories from Babacay by Witold Gombrowicz. (1928) French version : Le festin chez la Comtesse Fritouille et autres nouvelles. Translated from the Polish by Georges Sédir.

French publisher Folio has this collection of little books at 2€ each to make reader discover forgotten texts or try new writers. They usually are about 120 pages long and cover various types of literature. I bought Le festin chez la Comtesse Fritouille because I’d never read anything by Polish writer Witold Gombrowicz and I wanted to try one of his books.

My copy is a collection of three short stories coming from Bacacay, a larger collection of Gombrowicz’s short stories. This Folio 2€ includes A Premeditated Crime, Dinner at Countess Pavahoke’s and Virginity. The three were written in 1928. The French translation by Georges Sédir follows the translation codes that consist in translating names even if it’s not necessary. This is how you end up with characters named Antoine and Cécile in A Premeditated Crime or a countess Fritouille instead of Pavahoke. According to Google Translate, Pavahoke does mean Fritouille in French but I have no idea what it means and the internet is clueless too.

A Premeditated Crime is the story of a judge who arrives at the estate of Ignace K. They were old schoolmates and have a business meeting about an inheritance affair. When the judge arrives at the estate, he discovers that Ignace K. just died from a heart attack. The judge being a judge can’t help wondering if this death is natural or not. From then on, he’ll do his best to find everything strange and prove that Mr K. was murdered. Is the judge delusional or was Mr K. really killed in cold blood?

Dinner at Countess Pavahoke’s is told by a bourgeois who is invited to the Countess Pavahoke’s exclusive Friday dinners. These dinners are reserved to special guests and are the days where they only eat simple meals made of vegetables. This would be considered as stingy if it were organized by common people but since it’s set up by an aristocrat, it’s fashionable. Follows the description of a cruel and extraordinary diner but writing more about it would spoil the short story.

Virginity is the strange tale of Alice and Paul. They have been engaged for four years and Paul is just back from China to finally marry his fiancée. Paul is obsessed with Alice’s virginity and innocence. She’s 21 but what he loves most about her is this feeling of purity. But Alice’s mind is not as pure as Paul’s would like. I must confess I didn’t understand where Gombrowicz wanted to go with this story. If someone can enlighten me, comments and explanations are welcome.

I enjoyed Gombrowicz’s wits (and I’m not going to try to say this aloud, my French tongue is already in a twist) and his curious ideas for stories. He has a great sense of dark humour.

This is one of my contribution to Marina Sofia’s #EU27 Project – Reading the European Union.

 

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