Saturday, September 25, 2021

Olga Tokarczuk - Drive Your Plow Through the Bones of the Dead

In a remote Polish village, Janina devotes the dark winter days to studying astrology, translating the poetry of William Blake, and taking care of the summer homes of wealthy Warsaw residents. Her reputation as a crank and a recluse is amplified by her not-so-secret preference for the company of animals over humans. Then a neighbor, Big Foot, turns up dead. Soon other bodies are discovered, in increasingly strange circumstances. As suspicions mount, Janina inserts herself into the investigation, certain that she knows whodunit. If only anyone would pay her mind . . .
A deeply satisfying thriller cum fairy tale, Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead is a provocative exploration of the murky borderland between sanity and madness, justice and tradition, autonomy and fate. Whom do we deem sane? it asks. Who is worthy of a voice?

Comment: I saw this book at the library and blurb seemed intriguing enough that I was curious about reading. Only after arriving home and giving the book a closer look, did I notice this author has won a  Nobel Prize and my curiosity doubled. I ended liking the book but it wasn't as magnificent as I imagined.

This story is told to us by Janina Duszejko, a retired Polish teacher who now occupies her time, in her remote village close to the Czech Republic border, taking care of the houses of those who only come during the summer. She has one or two friends and she is very aware of how much harm people cause in nature and on animals. She writes letters all the time, complaining about hunters and poachers but nothing has came out of it. One day, however, one of the hunters is found dead and Janina, with all the power of her imagination and beliefs and astrological knowledge, starts saying it was probably a revenge of the animals. Then, more people die and she keeps the same opinion... but if those people were murdered, as it seems, someone has had to do it and not wild animals...or it's as Janina says after all?
I think the best element of this book was the writing itself. The author has a wonderful sense of the literary feel of the words and how they work together. Since the main character likes William Blake's poetry, often many passages have a poetic flavor as well and I could really savor what the intentions were, with the kind of scenario presented. Some passages really made me think about the issues the protagonist was defending and how we rarely pay attention to details, focusing only on the big picture of certain subjects.

However, the story has a plot, but sometimes I did feel a little confused by certain things. I would say this happened because the main character kept going back and forth in her memories and actions and at times, that transition was from one paragraph to the other, making it more difficult to keep track of things. Still, the story itself was simple, basically a defense of the rights of animals, and there were times I felt as angry as the protagonist, especially when she described the things hunters did and - even worse for me - the carelessness with which they would hunt.

Portuguese cover
I actually can understand the need to focus on the animal rights issue and how
some things seemed to be unfair... how often do we see images of cruelty against animals for no reason than sport, which means this theory the protagonist has, that animals are taking revenge, is quite interesting, even more so if one believes in the old justice tactic of the "eye for an eye" but I think the way this was written, the overlap of the plot moves and the reasons behind the murders, wasn't as great as it could. Some people mention that the solving of the mystery was predictable but to me, the word I would use is unconvincing.

I say this for a simple reason, we don't have enough actual clues and evolution of plot to make it obvious this is the path to consider. When it happens, I was a little surprised, not over the possibility - then, reading back can make it quite possible - but because the pacing and narrative just make it like it came out of nowhere. There is an expression I could use right now which would explain what I'm saying, but I bet it would be like spoiling for many would immediately understand the big mystery.

Janina is a complex character. We are meant to sympathize with her, she is misunderstood, taken for a crazy lady over her sort of introverted ways, her focus on poetry and animals rights and astrology, which she studies so much to the point of suggesting the stars and planet alignments are the reason behind so many things in life, from discoveries and catastrophes. I liked her but if all her quirky ways can make her special and easy to want to know better, she also has a little too much tunnel vision on what she things is the only way of behaving. There's also the issue of so much insistence on her part, that anyone feels tired of her repetitiveness, disregarding her right away.

Thinking about these elements, I was left with a good feeling having read the book. I don't think every detail worked out well enough for me, but generalizing, this was a good story, with intrigue and musings, a good enough mystery, a more or less good ending, but I can see why those who felt this could have been more intense, psychologically speaking, also feel the author didn't go as far as she could. Since this is more literary than thriller, I can accept it could have gone either way but it works enough the way it is.
Grade: 7/10

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