Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead

By Olga Tokarczuk

ALL POSTS CONTAIN SPOILERS

“The fact that we don’t know what’s going to happen in the future is a terrible mistake in the programming of the world. It should be fixed at the first opportunity.” (p. 271)

There is a tricky kind of novel, rare and hard to pull off: the Novel of Dubious Guilt, First Person. ‘The Turn of the Screw‘ is this kind of novel; ‘Gone Girl‘ is this kind of novel; ‘His Bloody Project‘ is this kind of novel.

In novels of this kind, a protagonist, speaking directly to the reader, relates a series of events in which they are implicated without revealing the extent of their involvement. Usually, but not always, it is a murder. The trick of it is: the reader must not be able to discern whether or not their narrator is guilty or innocent. They must not be able to trust the narrative, even as they invest in it by reading further. They must keep always before them the possibility either that the narrator is lying, or that the narrator is mad.

It’s hard to pull this off. If you make a narrator too cagey, if they act suspicious to their reader, their guilt will become apparent. But too much information, or obvious psychosis, also destroys the ambiguity, and once a reader has “figured out” what really happened, the effect is ruined.

Shame on me, I had never heard of Olga Tokarczuk. This really isn’t forgivable – one of her previous novels, ‘Flights‘, won the Man Booker International Prize, and she herself won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2018. But I had never heard of her: I picked up ‘Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead‘ solely because I found the title irresistible, and I have a sneaking suspicion that it is going to end up being the best book I read this year.

Janina Duszejko lives in rural Poland, near the Czech border. She is a teacher, an aging astrology enthusiast, an intense lover of animals. She has only a few friends, but she is known in her community: she cares for the summer dachas of the city people during the hard winters, and she has frequent confrontations with the local hunters. In her free time, she and her friend Dizzy translate Blake into Polish; she pores over the star charts of everyone she meets, a side project she has to prove her theory that the moment of a person’s birth contains, complete and unchangeable, the moment of their death. She had two dogs, her little girls, but they went missing the year before and she has never been able to find them.

One night in the middle of the winter, her neighbor Oddball comes to her house in the middle of the night to tell her that their mutual neighbor Bigfoot has died. He has choked on a bone from a deer that he poached, a habit for which Janina loathes him. As Oddball and Janina make the body decent for the police, Janina looks for Bigfoot’s papers – she wants to know his birthday, to draw his chart and add his death to her charts. She finds a photograph which shocks her; she does not tell us what is in it, but it sparks a series of events which leads to the deaths of four more men.

Over the next year, prominent men in the community begin to die in suspicious circumstances. The commandant of police falls down a well. A priest burns down in his own church. A fur farmer is found in an animal trap. The only thing that the men have in common: they were all hunters. Deer tracks are found near one body – fox tracks near another. Rumors begin to swirl around the community: the animals are taking their revenge.

Janina is a spectacular narrator: smart and observant and sad and sly and barking mad all at the same time. Tokarczuk, even in translation, is a beautiful writer, and this is prose like I’ve never quite encountered before. It’s a blend of real weirdness, humor, loneliness and wile. It’s pathos and bathos and rage.

“Spring is just a short interlude, after which the mighty armies of death advance; they’re already besieging the city walls. We live in a state of siege. If one takes a close look at each fragment of a moment, one might choke with terror. Within our bodies disintegration inexorably advances; soon we shall fall sick and die. Our loved ones will leave us, the memory of them will dissolve them in the tumult; nothing will remain. Just a few clothes in the wardrobe and someone in a photograph, no longer recognized. The most precious memories will dissipate. Everything will sink into darkness and vanish.” (p. 124)

Janina’s focus, her obsession, is animals. She has made what appears to be a small imaginative leap, but one which makes a permanent, wrathful outsider of her: she believes that animals are the moral equals of people. That they have souls, intelligences, if not identical to ours, like enough to warrant protections equal to the ones we offer each other. She views humans who kill, cage, or eat animals with the same revulsion you would feel for an unrepentant murderer. To a cannibal.

Olga Tokarczuk

“So I spoke, using wise words…

“”You’ll say it’s just one Boar,” I continued. “But what about the deluge of butchered meat that falls on our cities day by day like never-ending, apocalyptic rain? This rain heralds slaughter, disease, collective madness, the obfuscation and contamination of the Mind. For no human heart is capable of bearing so much pain. The whole, complex human psyche has evolved to prevent Man from understanding what he is really seeing. To stop the truth from reaching him by wrapping it in illusion, in idle chatter. The world is a prison of suffering, so constructed that in order to survive one must inflict pain on others…What sort of 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 world is this, where killing and pain are the norm?” (p. 107)

Because Janina is so single-minded, ‘Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead‘ isn’t a true mystery. By the “reveal”, you have a pretty good sense of what’s going on, but, at that point, you’ve come far enough with Janina that you are thoroughly on her side.

The trick of those mystery narrators, those Did-I-Or-Didn’t-I novels, is how do you sympathize with narrator who might be a murderer? ‘Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead‘ is a neat twist on this: how do you sympathize with a narrator when you are both murderers, she in your eyes, you in hers? Can the charm of her prose, the righteousness of her cause, the clarity of her vision, bring you along with her, make you a kind of accomplice?

The answer is yes, emphatically yes. Janina is as winning a narrator as I have encountered in years; ‘Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead‘ is a great love. A book this good, the first thing I do is buy something else by the author. ‘Flights‘ won Tokarczuk a Man Booker – I’ll start with that. Books this good are rare – when you find them, follow them.

A Unified Theory of Novels

So, I’d like to do something a little different this week, and instead of talking about one book which I finished in the past seven days, I’d like to talk about novels in general.

I said something a little while ago: “It doesn’t, for example, make any sense to complain that there weren’t enough battles between zombies and werewolves in ‘The Notebook’ – ‘The Notebook’ isn’t that kind of story.” But when I thought more about it, I felt that I had, as usual, been glib. And not merely because I have never read ‘The Notebook’, but because while I believe that this is a true and self-evident statement, why is it true?

It’s true because there are different kinds of novels.

I don’t mean Good versus Bad novels – I mean that there are different categories of novels. Partly, yes, this is what we’re talking about when we talk about genre: romance versus horror, but even within that great non-genre, Literature, there are different categories of literary novel. And I know that this is obvious to everyone, but it bears a little reiteration, because it has implications which we rarely examine with any care.

Let me put it this way:

Which is the better novel: ‘Ulysses‘ or ‘Jurassic Park‘?

There are a lot of ways to answer this question.

You might say: ‘Ulysses’, because it is a technical accomplishment of such complexity and beauty that it transformed the very idea of the novel.

You might say: ‘Ulysses’, because that’s the book that people are more impressed when I say I’ve read it.

You might say: ‘Jurassic Park’, because more people like it.

You might say: ‘Ulysses’, because more informed people like it.

You might say: ‘Jurassic Park’, because, unlike ‘Ulysses’, it’s actually fun to read.

None of these answers is quite satisfying, is it? Yes, ‘Jurassic Park’ is more entertaining, but ‘Ulysses’ was more complex. How can you adjudicate ‘better’ in a case like this?

The problem, of course, is that the question is nonsensical. Neither novel is strictly ‘better’, because they are different kinds of novels, and so have different novelistic goals.

Over the years, I’ve come to think about three broad categories of novels (in my head, I call them Tiers). Within each Tier, a novel can be either successful or not successful, which means that there is such a thing as a Very Good Tier 1 novel, which is, for my money, ‘better’ than a Very Bad Tier 3 novel, in so far as goodness can be read into execution of intention.

These are my Tiers:

Tier 1 Novels: Plot

Tier 1 novels are novels where the primary purpose of the novel is plot. ‘Plot’, in this case, is distinct from ‘story’ – most, if not all novels, have a story of some sort, but not all novels are plot-driven.

Plot-driven novels are characterized by action. Action moves the novel forward, and action is the necessary resolution of the plot. ‘Action’ does not necessarily, of course, mean a sword fight – action can also be the discovery of a murderer, or the culmination of a magical quest, or an exorcism.

Because, of course, most of what are traditionally called ‘genre novels’ are contained in this tier: fantasy, murder mysteries, techno-thrillers.

My favorite Tier 1 novelist is Michael Crichton (as is probably clear from my obsession with ‘Jurassic Park’). I’ve read everything he’s written, even that pirate one. I could wrote a whole essay on my deep love of a Crichton premise. Stephen King is another beloved Tier 1 novelist for me; so was George R. R. Martin, before he ghosted us all.

Tier 2 Novels: People

Tier 2 novels are novels in which the story isn’t, necessarily, plot-driven: these novels might be novels of character development, emotional crisis, personal tragedy or triumph.

Tier 2 novels are not characterized by subject matter – they are characterized by their limitation. Tier 2 novels are only about what they are about. They do not, by design or failure, transcend their own story. If they are a story of a young man’s descent into madness, then they are only about that particular young man and his particular madness – they are not a metaphor for anything larger.

This is not necessarily a comment on the value of these novels; on the contrary, Tier 2 includes some of the most absorbing novels I have ever read. They are often powerful, moving stories, stories you may perhaps relate strongly to, but they are stories from which you do not learn anything about the greater problems of humanity.

Jonathan Franzen is the exemplar Tier 2 novelist: his novels are beautifully imagined, richly, even elaborately, detailed, intricate and specific. But his protagonists, his beautifully-imagined protagonists, are what his stories are about. They aren’t about you or me, us, the great mass of humanity – they are about the people that appear in their pages, and no one else.

Sometimes, a Tier 2 novels transcends category: it is a story only about the specific people and specific incidents described, but it is so beautiful and perfect, so finely and humanely drawn, that it feels as though it touches on something universal, and so becomes about the common human experience without ever becoming a metaphor. Elena Ferrante’s novels are, in my opinion, the best of example of this kind of category-straddle: indisputably, to me, Tier 2 novels, the depiction of the two women at the heart of those books is so deft and true that it becomes about us all, in the ways that we are all alike.

Tier 3 Novels: Metaphor

Tier 3 novels are novels which transcend the specifics of their story. They are novels which use their specific stories to tell a bigger story, a more universal story. Their characters are metaphors, archetypes, allegories, from which we might learn something about ourselves. They can be bad or good, successful or unsuccessful, but their characters or stories mean something more than the specific circumstances that afflict them.

Tier 3 novels are the novels we are all used to thinking of as “great” novels. Most of the canonically “great” novels are Tier 3 novels, but this is, I think, a limitation of the canon.

Of course, many of my own most-loved novels are Tier 3 novels: ‘East of Eden‘, ‘Infinite Jest‘, anything by Graham Greene, ‘The Age of Innocence‘, ‘The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil‘, by George Saunders – all Tier 3. Most of the really excellent or seminal science fiction, Tier 3: Wells, Orwell, Huxley, Asimov, Dick, Herbert, Gibson, Le Guin, you name it: all Tier 3.

And, of course, some of the most bloated, irritating ‘classics’, the books with which we are all flogged in high school, are also Tier 3: ‘The Grapes of Wrath’, ‘The Sound and the Fury’, ‘The Golden Bowl’, ‘Sons and Lovers’, ‘The Alexandria Quartet’ by Lawrence Durrell – all Tier 3, lord help us.

But some great classics, books beloved and admired, are Tier 2’s: most of Jane Austen’s novels, ‘Brideshead Revisited‘ by Evelyn Waugh, anything by E. M. Forster.

I don’t argue for the perfection of this system. Some of my favorite novels defy categorization according to my system:

I Love Dick‘, by Chris Kraus, ‘World War Z‘ by Max Brooks (no, I’m not kidding), ‘If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler‘, by Italo Calvino – what are they?. Or how about something like ‘Bleak House‘, by Dickens? You feel as though it ought to be Tier 3, it is Dickens after all, but is it? Only in the most insipid sense: a fable about how goodness will be rewarded and wickedness punished, but on that level the book is garbage anyway – ‘Bleak House’ lives in its specific characters and prose, so maybe it would be happier in Tier 2.

Or how about ‘The Screwtape Letters‘: it’s clearly a Tier 3, but it isn’t a metaphor, it’s a fantasy, and so in some ways feels more like a Tier 1 novel than anything else. It’s a fable, an exposition, it’s barely a novel, more a series of lectures in a funny framing.

But, for better or worse, this is how I think about novels, and my tiers have given me a way to love and exalt ‘Jurassic Park‘ as much as I love and exalt ‘Infinite Jest‘, a way to express what I feel: that these are books of equal quality, in which I might take equal joy, because they are trying to do different things. There are a lot of ways to be good, and ‘literature’ is just too broad a category.