Sometimes the opening sentence of a first-person narrative can so vividly capture the personality of its speaker that you immediately want to spend all the time you can in their company. That’s the case with Mrs. Janina Duszejko, narrator of “Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead,” the latest novel by Polish author Olga Tokarczuk to appear in English,
“I am already at an age and additionally in a state where I must always wash my feet thoroughly before bed,” Janina informs us, “in the event of having to be removed by an ambulance in the Night.”
Within the next few lines she reveals that she’s feverishly devoted to astrology, that she loves all creatures great and small, that she’s in the habit of giving her neighbors peculiar nicknames, that she frets about her debilitating “Ailments,” and that her habits of capitalization are a tad whimsical.
After her neighbor Big Foot is found dead, we also learn that she has rather an odd take on mortality. “I realized,” she remarks, “what a good thing death can be, how just and fair, like a disinfectant, or a vacuum cleaner.”
Tokarczuk won the Man Booker International Prize in 2018 for her novel “Flights,” a time-hopping, collage-like meditation on how travelers navigate space and time. “Drive Your Plow” is more straightforward in its format, but couldn’t be more offbeat in tone. In Antonia Lloyd-Jones’s beguiling translation, Janina’s passions and pet peeves come through loud and clear.
Janina is a semi-retired schoolteacher living in the backwoods of southwest Poland, close to the Czech border. There, she ekes out a living looking after well-to-do folks’ summer homes for them during the winter. One of the delights of the book is how vividly Janina is steeped in her isolated surroundings.
“The road is poor, the frost and snow destroy whatever the local council tries to repair with its limited expenditure. To reach the asphalt you must drive four kilometers on a dirt road full of potholes. . . . But there are some for whom these conditions are ideal. There’d be lots of Hypotheses to put forward if we wanted to amuse ourselves by looking into it. Psychology and sociology would have plenty of potential lines of inquiry to suggest, but I don’t find the subject in the least bit interesting.”
When not making observations like these, Janina focuses on the death of Big Foot and several others that follow. She suspects that these were murders and that they were carried out by the local wildlife population in retaliation for being hunted and poached all the time. When she tries to convince the authorities of this, however, they’re not interested. To them, she realizes, she’s “just an old woman, gone off her rocker living in this wilderness.”
She does, however, have some allies who keep a protective eye on her. They include her former pupil Dizzy, with whom she’s translating William Blake’s verse into Polish; her neighbor Oddball, who keeps a much tidier house than she does; and her friend Good News, a shopkeeper whose “own special illness” (chief symptom: a complete lack of body hair) is a big plus in Janina’s eyes.
Janina, it turns out, has had her fair share of worldly experience. She used to be a bridge engineer, traveling abroad to work on projects before her Ailments got the better of her. She also apparently used to have a husband, if that “Mrs.” is anything to go by. (We don’t learn much about him, beyond the fact that she once shared her bed with a Catholic “and nothing good came of it.”)
The thing that has her most distraught is the loss of her “Little Girls,” whom she repeatedly mentions without disclosing exactly who they were or what happened to them. In her wacky way, she’s a mesmerizing storyteller who sows continual doubt in the reader’s mind as to what is really going on with her. In the meantime, her addled pearls of wisdom couldn’t be more appealing. (Example: “It’s a feature of flashlights that they’re only visible in the daytime.”)
How far should we trust Janina’s take on reality? Perhaps no further than we should trust our own. “The whole, complex human psyche,” she warns us, “has evolved to prevent Man from understanding what he is really seeing.”
Throughout the book, Janina comes across as righteous and even fanatical in her beliefs, but essentially impotent and harmless. Her indignation at her gun-toting neighbors and the way they dismiss her is profound, however.
“Who divided the world into useless and useful,” she asks, “and by what right?”
“Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead” may don the outward form of a seriocomic murder mystery. But deep down it’s a barbed and subversive tale about what it takes to challenge the complacency of the powers that be.
By Olga Tokarczuk, translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones
Riverhead Books, 274 pp., $27
Michael Upchurch is the former Seattle Times book critic.