Introduction to Olga Tokarczuk’s “Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead”


If there is one word that accurately sums up what is so ominous about the beginnings of Tokarczuk’s recently translated novel into English, it would be “portent.” Even the act of defining the beginning of the book happened to use the word “ominous,” which is in fact a synonym. This slippage from one word to another makes me realize that we as human beings still have a poor relationship with the events of the future. In the 1950s, everyone assumed that cars would be flying. In the 1960s, few people realized the level of climate catastrophe that could be caused by the amount of carbon emissions released in a single lifetime. And so on.

Right at the beginning of the novel, we experience firsthand the problems of maintaining both of our eyes, like some time-traveling iguana, on two time periods at once. The title of the first chapter is “Now Pay Attention.” We are meant to be, like Janina, poised to take in all details of the present as gospel, as untamed by the mind. And yet, the epigraph of the chapter connotes another sensation, this time of inevitability:

Once meek, and in a perilous path,
The just man kept his course along
The vale of death

William Blake

In the first two chapters, it is Blake, a poet and painter who claimed to have seen visions, who is quoted. Waking up to banging on her door, Janina laments not checking her Ephemerides – which is a calculation of the planets and stars – before opening the door to find her neighbor. So combined with an order to “pay attention” to the what is happening now, we have a character and a theme addressing the past and future instead.

Janina’s neighbor tells her when she answers the door that Bigfoot, their shared village mate, is dead.

Oddball, the messenger to the deadly news, is a nickname (like the victim’s Bigfoot), as Janina rejects any notion that we are simply one name alone. We are as many names as people who know us, she believes. She does not respect the name she was given either, and could just as easily have been something else. “I think my real name is Emilia, or Joanna.”

Or Olga.

To the narrator, whatever her name, her desire in multiple names is to thwart what she describes as a dangerous lack of imagination in her fellow man.

And in a span of just a few short pages, Tokarczuk has done what she does best.

Flights of Fancy

Unmapping: On Olga Tokarczuk's FLIGHTS — Triangle House

I first heard about Flights from a New York Times book review. For a while, I had grown tired of American fiction. It felt plagued by either delusions of grandeur and bloated with writing that felt unearned, or the plots felt pigeon-holed in convenient and publishable markets. If the merger of Penguin and Random House has led to anything, it is in the digustingly narrow-minded take on book publishing as a money-making venture, rather than as the most democratic medium to explore ideas. It is strange: it is the easiest thing to pick up a pen and write, and as such the medium should be open to all sorts of genres and ideas. Unfortunately, it seems to have led to the opposite, as American publishers struggle to bottleneck more books into a mold. They have become too timid to stake any claims on form or function.

Only in hindsight was I able to see, as I read works by Hesse and Huysmans, Houellebecq and Cusk, Knasugaard and Tokarczuk, that though Europe may be apathetic to its cultural significance (according to Douglas Murray), literature still represented something of note to its people. Where American readers have a desire to be entertained, European readers wanted challenge. I’m not suggesting a challenge in word play, but rather a challenge of ideas. Or, perhaps something more sophisticated was happening from the top-down. Authors like Tokarczuk, Cusk, and Knausgaard, are challenging the structures of what literature can be. Cusk’s cerebral conversations are the kind I wish I could have with any American, and unfortunately I cannot. Knausgaard’s pace and attention reminds us of the pathetic state of our minds in a digital infosphere, our smart phones wreaking havoc over our ability to stare at persons, places, and things for very long.

And then there is Tokarczuk, who so far I have found difficult to pin down. Reading Flights two years ago was a delight, as I enthusiastically took up what the author called a “constellation novel.” Flights is a book one would read with jealousy during the 2020 pandemic: it is all about travel, meeting strangers on trains, hardly setting foot in one’s culture or mind, fully open to ideas of pain and pleasure, as well as a strange commitment to anatomy. Just as we make marks wherever we go, so too places make marks on our bodies. I believe it is a book which will hold up extremely well, and I intend to return to the book in anticipation of the next translation of a major work by her, The Books of Jacob, something I won’t be reading until what looks to be March 2022.

Imaginative Knowledge

On the Courage and Complexity of Olga Tokarczuk | Literary Hub

In Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, some autobiographical features reveal themselves. Janina despises Bigfoot, the recent victim of choking on a bone, for his cruelty to animals. Tokarczuk is a vegetarian. But her feminism also manifests itself in the title of the second chapter, “Testosterone Autism” which she defines for us:

It’s hard work talking to some people, most often males. I have a Theory about it. With age, many men come down with testosterone autism, the symptoms of which are a 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. His capacity to read novels almost entirely vanishes; testosterone autism disturbs the character’s psychological understanding.

Never in my years of reading was my father described so acutely.

Though, like Blake, Tokarczuk could be called “mad” whether for her appearance or in the sometimes lewd descriptions in her books, she is very much fighting for reclamation of lost knowledge, of inwardness, of the ability to be sophisticated about our state of being in the universe.

This desire is not without merit, and plenty of examples of the erasure of cultures and history can be used. One easy place to fear the loss of knowledge concerns translation. We rely on human translators, as they are embodiments of the most up-to-date trends in languages. Languages are alive and shifting. Watch any American teenager spout new slang and we can see that.

But we exist in a technological space where digitized translation is becoming all too common and, paradoxically, it is putting human translators out of work. However Google must rely on human translators to tweak computer algorithms. Hopefully the conflict here is obvious.

There’s plenty more from around the world. Anybody can see that the biggest effect of American colonialism overlaying Native American tribal lands has been an eradication of culture and language, making English the accepted and forced mode of communication. Western diets, high in fat, have invaded even the healthiest places like Okinawa. Old cultural recipes that allowed Okinawans to generate the highest density of centenarians (people who live to 100 years old), are now being lost to double cheeseburgers and french fries.

We applaud advances made by the Enlightenment, and we should, for the good reason that suffering is never worth the wisdom it engenders. But progress can also sacrifice people, ideas, and culture in order to press “forward.” Despite the fact that Shakespeare’s King Lear is able to “see” the folly of his ways, this is no consolation for Cordelia, who lies dead from her father’s punishment.

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, like her other works, invites doubt over our biggest advances. The future remains uncertain: what if all this human prosperity came because we shorted our children’s futures? What if they are doomed to see existence as a lost opportunity? In one path, we could have made the right choices. In the other (easily likely path), we are forever locked in the misery of a climate catastrophe, or nuclear holocaust, stuck in the middle of the road, still living, but always realizing what could have been.

The subjunctive mood is what I am talking about here. In English, words like “should” or “would” are part of the subjunctive tense, which discusses possibilities and imagination. The best literature sparks this kind of thinking.

Which is better, Tokarczuk asks us, a woman who cannot seem to escape her own observations of astrology and portent, who views the world as an inevitable strain of existence, but also has an incredible amount of wisdom and interiority?

Or the opposite, a man’s world of consumption and immediacy, only interested in appetites and action, who has no attention span for a dialogue, even with himself?

I am so excited to continue past the first two chapters of the book. Because these mental issues could not be more prescient.

We had a president who had little regard for the English language, and it was written in books like Fire and Fury and Fear: Trump in the White House that advisors had to design presentations that included many pictures, because Donald would not read. He would not even use email.

It was not (and still is not) at all clear just what exactly is going on inside the man’s head. And unfortunately, the conversations I have with my friends indicate that they cannot get a read on their father’s heads as well. Right now I know more than five friends who describe their fathers as “restless, bored, incapable of conversation.” I do not know what is going on in the rest of the world, but in the United States there is the feeling of generational warfare between fathers and their sons, mothers and their daughters. Perhaps it is because of the growing gap in age, or it may be too much social media. Income inequality is surely part of the problem, while Tokarczuk’s “testosterone autism” may be a cognitive decline from people who did not cultivate a good friendship with their own minds.

Which has been a larger issue in America for some time. While our people avoid science to our own detriment, we routinely replace it with dogma, blind ideology, and conspiracy theories, revealing ourselves to be a people with little to no capacity for self-doubt and few mental muscles for self-investigation. And enough time has passed in our history to wonder if we will ever escape.

Towards the end of chapter II, Janina reveals a flashback of her attempt to save a dog from being tortured by Bigfoot, her master. After sneaking into Bigfoot’s house and cutting the lines tying the dog to the table, she takes it home, feeds it and goes to sleep next to it (she on the couch, the dog under the radiator). The next day, she allows the dog to run free, and the dog runs back to Bigfoot’s house. “The prison is not outside, but inside each of us,” Janina laments. “Perhaps we simply don’t know how to live without it.”

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