Sidharth Vardhan

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead – a review

Drive your plow over the bones of dead olga tokarczuk sidharth vardhan review analysis
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Published: 2009
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…

(A review of
'Drive your Pow over the bones of the dead'
by Olga Tokarczuk
short listed for International Booker 2019 for
English translation by Antonia Lloyd-Jones )

There can be spoilers in here for it is supposed to be a whodunit, though the whodunit is so painfully that calling it a whodunit seems to be a crime against humanity.

This book employs a theme that is close to me and seems to be explored more and more often by writers worldwide - that of cruelty towards animals and how it has become ingrained in our lifestyle and how little a thought we spare to it. Anna Sewell's ‘Black Beauty’ is the first novel I remember that explores this theme and you could see it reflected in a lot of works of Coetzee (specifically ‘Elizabeth Costello’) and most recently Han Kang’s ‘The Vegetarian’ (Elizabeth Costello looks at it in more logical way, while The Vegetarian is all pathos). Much of what haunts these authors can be summed up in a single quote:

'Auschwitz begins wherever someone looks at a slaughterhouse and thinksthey're only animals.' “Auschwitz start when someone looks at a slaughterhouse and thinks they are just animals”

Theodor W. Adorno

(btw a much similar comparison attracted a lot of criticism for Elizabeth Costello).

You could be critical of such sentimentality toward animals after all as Costello points out even the animal lovers are all about wildlife - the tigers, polar bears etc and even on off chance you are vegetarian because you don't like the idea of animals dying to be on your dining table, you would still take millions of lives by doing pest control at your home (that is an argument from Elizabeth Costello).

In some African tribes, they pray for the animal they have just killed to eat - we can’t exist without violence but at least they spare a thought for their victims.

Anyway, people do show such kind of compassion for animals. And to some, their pets are really like their children. And if someone kills the pet you raised like your child, won’t you be moved to seek justice? But in this case, the courts won’t care for you. So then vengence? That is the case with the narrator here.

From very early on, you can see the narrator, an elderly lady who lives alone and watches weather forecast all day is no reliable source of information, She talks about horoscopes a lot and that is one of her many eccentricities, I mean look at her attitude toward names:

“I didn’t say anything, but I didn’t like it. Those names didn’t suit this Dog, considering her personal history. Something else would have to be thought up for her instead.
What a lack of imagination it is to have official first names and surnames. No one ever remembers them, they’re so divorced from the Person, and so banal that they don’t remind us of them at all. What’s more, each generation has its own trends, and suddenly everyone’s called Magdalena, Patryk or – God forbid – Janina. That’s why I try my best never to use first names and surnames, but prefer epithets that come to mind of their own accord the first time I see a Person. I’m sure this is the right way to use language, rather than tossing about words stripped of all meaning.”


Olga Tokarczuk (Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead)

and she is not the only eccentric character in there. About her neighbor:

“It’s hard work talking to some people, most often males. I have a Theory about it. With age, many men come down with testosterone autism, the symptoms of which are a gradual decline in social intelligence and capacity for interpersonal communication, as well as a reduced ability to formulate thoughts. The Person beset by this Ailment becomes taciturn and appears to be lost in contemplation. He develops an interest in various Tools and machinery, and he’s drawn to the Second World War and the biographies of famous people, mainly politicians and villains. His capacity to read novels almost entirely vanishes; testosterone autism disturbs the character’s psychological understanding.”

Olga Tokarczuk (Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead)

And her theory of genetics:

“I was working in my garden patch, testing one of my Theories. I think I can find proof for the fact that we inherit phenotypes, which flies in the face of modern genetics. I had noticed that certain acquired features make irregular appearances in subsequent generations. So three years ago I set about repeating Mendel’s experiment with sweet peas; I am now in the middle of it. I notched the petals of the flowers, through five generations in a row (two a year), and then checked to see if the seeds would produce flowers with damaged petals. I must say that the results of this experiment were looking very encouraging.”

Olga Tokarczuk (Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead)

But despite everything, the novel just never catches the spark. To be honest, she seemed to be making it on-the-go, as if it was serialized in some magazine or created for an on-the-spot contest and, though it was not long, it felt long.

The little that is good shows in observations about humanity made by the narrator.

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