The day I finished reading the novel “Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead” by Olga Tokarczuk, there was an almost total lunar eclipse. In the ethereally trusting mood this book brought over me, I thought the convergence on November 19, 2021 must mean something. For me, for the universe.
I missed seeing the lunar eclipse, but the next night, perhaps newly aware of the presence of celestial bodies, I spent an hour watching the full moon rise through wispy clouds. It looked like a lantern glowing under turbulent water. Surely a body so bright, round and predictable must exert a pull not only on our oceans but on our bodies, our lives.
This is what Janina Duszejko is trying to prove to local authorities in rural Poland. A solitary old woman who hates her given name, she spends a year connecting a string of five murders in her remote neighborhood to the alignment of heavenly bodies and to the rage of woodland creatures—deer, foxes, her own pet dogs—that are hunted in the area. She conducts this passionate campaign despite her list of physical ailments—including a persistent stream of tears. Through it, she gathers a small, rag-tag community around her which develops into an alternative family.
Lucky for her, this family is in place when the truth about the murders comes to light.
Janina doesn’t waste time getting people to like her, including the reader. She cuts herself off from most of humanity through her life choices and through a complex series of verbal fences, which, to the reader, are refreshingly blunt. Her acerbic voice is, like a strong tea, the bracing heart of the novel. Gorgeous passages reveal her view of a living, interconnected universe. For instance, an old quarry in her neighborhood of seasonal cottages “would surely have consumed the whole thing eventually in the avid mouths of its differs. They say there are plans to start it up again, at which point we shall vanish from the face of the Earth, devoured by Machines.”
At the core of her interconnected outlook is her passion for astrology. “The motion of the planets is always hypnotic, beautiful, impossible to halt or hasten,” she says. “I like considering the fact that this order goes far beyond the time and place of Janina Duszejko.”
Seeing an order beyond her time and place, Janina assigns herself Protector of the natural world—which turns out to the be only place that protects her, the only place that comforts her endless string of tears. At the heart of Janina’s rage is deep sadness.
Her words reveal her stance toward much of humanity, especially Polish government and the Catholic Church. It’s her vs. society except for a small group of intimates on whom she bestows new names: Oddball, her neighbor; Dizzy, a young police department IT guy who translates the work of William Blake into Polish; Good News, the enigmatic young woman who operates a used clothing store.
Less desirables get New Names, too: Black Coat, the police-aligned son of Oddball, and conniving neighbor Big Foot, who’s death-by-choking starts her quest for star-guided truth in the first place.
Drive Your Plow never claims to be a mystery, but there are murders and there is a surprise ending. Janina certainly has a case to make, for good reasons. If you’re expecting a conventional murder mystery, the big reveal is awkward and oddly timed. But not if you read this unique book for what it is, a self-portrait of an obstinate woman finding love and meaning amidst the chaos of a shifting world, it is deeply satisfying. Even transporting.
“Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead” never claims to be a mystery, but there are murders and there is a surprise ending involving one hell of a murder weapon. Janina certainly has a case to make, for good reasons.
If you’re expecting a conventional murder mystery, the big reveal is awkward and oddly timed. But if you read this unique book for what it is, a self-portrait of an obstinate woman finding love and meaning amidst the chaos of a shifting world, it is deeply satisfying. Even transporting. It is a cosmic search for connection guided by planets and the poetry of William Blake.
In my favorite passage, Janina explains that each human being starts as a spark flying through space, irrevocably influenced by its journey past each planet.
“When a human Being is born, a spark begins to fall. First, it flies through the darkness of outer space, then through galaxies, and finally, before it fall here, to Earth, the poor thing bumps into the orbits of planets. Pluto initiates the spark, revealing that life is “a fleeting incident , followed by death.” Neptune gives the spark the cold comfort of illusions: “dreams about flying, fantasy, narcotics and books.”
Uranus equips each human spark with the capacity for rebellion. Saturn reminds it of the unavoidable prisons of life: rules, forms, a sickly body, illness, hospitals, loss. As if to make up for that blow, Jupiter gives the spark dignity and optimism. Mars adds a fighting spirit.
The Sun blinds the human spark, reduces it to a small, isolated Self. But then two saving gifts: Venus gives love, sympathy, and community. Mercury gives the human spark language, the capacity to communicate.
And then as the human spark passes the Moon, “it gains something as intangible as the soul.”
Reading this novel with its web of planetary pulls and its quotations from Blake, I caught glimpses of intangible truth glowing under the surface.