Magpies All – Chapters 7 and 8 of “Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead”

Compared to Flights, where the structure of the story is told from what looks to be the outside in, her subsequent novel feels like the opposite: from the inside out. In a Louisiana Channel interview, Tokarczuk relates how, before she begins writing, she must focus on the structure. In Flights, we jump from one character to another, but sometimes we return. It is not a linear trajectory. We see from an overhead view layouts of airports, as well as a scrutinizing look at anatomy from the outside, not as the owner of the body parts we are discussing.

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead is an opposite approach. We stay resolutely in Janina’s position. And the provisional space and time of traveling is given over to one unified space and time, where Janina must look after these cottages with Oddball and translate poetry with Dizzy. Whereas in Flights the heroine believes in untenable subjects like psychology, and is always on the move with her person, Janina is obsessed with the constants of the universe, and has a negative connotation with death and decay of the human. This is a contrasting novel to Tokarczuk’s English debut, and this helps us to gain a sense of some of the metaphors and symbols at play in this latest English translation.

Quite possibly neither of these two extremes exist as appropriate responses to the world. In the interview, Tokarczuk rejects travel by flight, which is a sort of magical experience where each airport is the same so that we might acclimate to new geographies we have no business visiting with such speed. Equally, Janina’s horoscope of the Commandant in chapter 8 could be true just as much as it could be false. Though it feels as though it contains the confidence of the cosmos, with particular attention to the position of Pluto as it is related to “the police and mafia,” this knowledge feels arcane in a modern era.

Regardless, it does give Tokarczuk opportunities to relate her own profession as an author to the world. Her favorite inspiration appears to be Philip K. Dick, writer of famous works as A Scanner Darkly and Do Androids Dream of Electronic Sheep? One of the references she makes for her affection concerns magpies, birds who build their nests from the detritus both manmade and not. “Writers are like magpies” is a line she repeats from Dick.

Magpies make an appearance in Chapter 7 of her novel as a sign of luck, but it also helps dig into some of the themes of the book. On the one hand, Janina is a magpie of sorts, gathering fur and pieces of animals to disgust those at the police station, an irony that Janina capitalizes on (“You don’t like blood, but you like black pudding?”). But in a much darker way, there are other humans who are magpies as well, as Janina goes off on an author-inspired speech from Olga Tokarczuk herself that becomes a sort of masterpiece in its own right. You wouldn’t want to be in that room when the crazy lady goes off, but seeing it in print is a pleasure all on its own:

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 of 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?

For any reader of the novel it is a make or break moment, where Olga enters and announces to the reader that this is what the book is about, and if you do not like it, you can go somewhere else.

Fortunately enough, I like it.

I think Tokarczuk did her diligence and rooted the speech in both character and theme. This makes magpies out of all of us, fashioning our living spaces with the bodies of dead creatures. Leather for our furniture, fur for our jackets, bone and ivory for our jewelry. It smacks of Moby-Dick in the way we tell ourselves that whaling is a glorious profession, as we drop what remains of the carcass into the deep.

Here the hunters cannot even abide the law of the magpie. Here they drunkenly shoot at whatever moves and take little care to observe the fact that 98% of the living mammals in the world now are domesticated animals we eat and us. That final 2% hangs by a thread in an apocalyptic environment. What theology have they constructed to account for this? What ritual?

Janina takes great pains to understand the universe according to its terms, meaning the universal law of the cosmos as it has been set forth in stars, planets, and alignments. But even as she does so, she is untrusted and viewed as a crank. There is something to be said for consequence here: her philosophy does a much better job of protecting life than the acts of the law, in which for some reason hog hunting season ends in February and starts back up again sometime in the fall. Janina balks at the dates here, finding it odd that life does not mince at dying on a particular day, yet she must have the time of death and the day of death of the Commandant.

All we have is our own perspective really. And unfortunately, our perspective is not enough. “The Sun is the same in a relative way, but you’re older,” Pink Floyd sings. Janina’s astrology may not be the right solution either, but what is strange is that her magpie behavior of finding answers from the stars and bringing them back to her Weather Channel-surfing home carries with it a side effect. That side effect is a broader and deeper worldview of our limitations in lifespan compared to that of the billions of years of the universe. With that, it makes Janina travel not with greater heft, but the opposite: with a lightfoot.

I find it interesting that of the professors who read and study philosophies of ethics and morals, few of them (if any) are improved by the study. Perhaps we should be evaluating a belief system based on its consequences, rather than its central tenets. No matter the knowledge, something makes it back to our nest.

And we can see that Janina’s belief system allows a more playful routine knowledge and ideas. Like Philip K. Dick, Janina has a reputation for being outside those of rational society, and as she levels her complaints at the station, we see a resemblance of Philip K. Dick writing to the FBI. Her cosmological understanding clashes with civilized peoples, because their knowledge is habitual, rote, and based on statistical understanding of their immediate surroundings. Janina teaches, but as she ages, she is cast aside in favor of younger teachers who need jobs and are more easily manipulated into serving the educational needs of the state. We’ve all been there…

With Janina’s character there is also a sense of foreboding. Sometimes, as she lets on, Magpies bring back cigarette butts still lit, and they burn the nest as well as the entire structure the magpie’s home was resting on. Does this burning carry with it a liberating tone? One where Janina is able to convince her fellow countrymen that animals really are taking revenge on those who have killed them? Or is this the beginning of the end for her, where her tirades go too far and someone decides to silence her cranky voice?

Time will tell.

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