Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead

This is, in case you aren’t sure, the title of a book I recently read. It is not a command or anything like that. Just to be clear. 2020 is a wild ride and I suppose anything is possible so disclaimers such as these are…necessary, perhaps.

I started this book months ago – possibly pre-pandemic, if there ever was a pre-pandemic time, although I’m not convinced anymore. I do remember I had a physical copy of the book, from the library, and it wasn’t one of the five or six books that kept me company in the early days of lockdown, the books the HPL so graciously allowed us to hold onto until they were able to reopen, so it must have been before March that I had it from the library. 

(You know, it’s paragraphs like these that remind me that I am inching ever closer to fully turning into my mother…holy hell.)

ANYWAY. 

I started reading it way back then, but it just wasn’t the right time. You might recall that I recently wrote about the books that find you at the absolute right time, even when you’re not sure that particular book is what you actually wanted, because you thought you wanted to read something else entirely. But what about those books that you eagerly anticipate? When you wait patiently for them to appear as “ready for pickup” in your library holds, and you hurry home with them and then you are not nearly as enthralled with them as you’d thought you’d be? There has to be a German word for that kind of let down. 

The good news is that when this happens, you can always tell the book, “It’s not you, it’s me” and that will almost always be the case. Because I recently downloaded the ebook version of this same book and I loved it. So there you go.

This book by Olga Tokarczuk and translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, starts off as…well, I wasn’t sure what it was going to be, it seems almost like a kind of pseudo-fairy tale (to my mind, anyway) and then morphs quickly into a sort of murder mystery/thriller (several dead bodies show up throughout the novel) with elements of screwball modern-Eastern Bloc comedy (complete with incompetent government officials and eccentric villagers.) But, there is also a healthy dose of environmentalism, of feminism and animal and elder rights within the novel, too. Oh, and there is also a great deal of astrology (astrology- and horoscope-loving friends, you will appreciate this) and lots of William Blake. Kind of the most perfect combination of everything, in my opinion.

It is also an extremely funny novel, and once again, it is the translator – that absolute GIFT of a human being – that allows us (me) who can read in only one and a half languages (like a lot of Ontario public school educated people my spoken French is awful, but I can kind of sort of read it?) to be able to fully embrace a novel originally written in Polish, right down to the sarcasm and the sadness and the humour. I remain constantly in awe of the art of translation and in this novel especially because I found this review in The Guardian from a couple of years ago and, well, this paragraph made my head swim:

“In Antonia Lloyd-Jones’s translation, the prose is by turns witty and melancholy, and never slips out of that distinctive narrative voice. It also contains perhaps the most bravura translation performance I have ever seen, when Janina and her companion repeatedly attempt to translate a passage of Blake: several versions of a particular verse are rendered in English, which has been translated from the Polish, which in turn has been translated from English. It is difficult to imagine a more tricky task for a translator, or one undertaken with more skill.”

HONESTLY.

The translator is a magical unicorn wizard of words, you guys. Just mad, mad respect.

In Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, Mrs. Duszejko – please don’t call her Janina – is truly a force, and I loved the way bits of who she is – who she was – are revealed a little at a time with always surprising results. Surprising to the other characters and also, somewhat shamefully, to the reader. This shock and surprise is exactly what happens to older people and how they are treated by society, a society that takes them only at face value, as if they’ve always been old and hard of hearing, frail and possibly forgetful. As if they couldn’t possibly have had extraordinary or even interesting lives. As if they barely even exist anymore. It’s a hard look at a society unable or unwilling to reckon with aging and the aging process, something I imagine a lot of us also stubbornly refuse to face. In this book, though, Olga Tokarczuk has given us Duszejko, an old woman who is still learning and knows what’s going on. An old woman who has things to say, who refuses to be silenced and from whom we cannot look away. 

And thank goodness. More of this, please.

 

2 responses to “Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead

  1. It’s wild that I never even thought about how those poems and the translations of them, where themselves translated. It is totally magical.

  2. Magical indeed. And thank you for reading!

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