Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead. Most likely a crime thriller or a murder mystery, right? That’s how some reviews have perceived this novel, including one put out as “the Amazon review” of this Amazon Best Book of August 2019.
Maybe advertising the book this way helps sell more copies. But I think doing so does the novel a disservice. It is, at worst, a mistake. Or at least a shallow reading of a novel by Olga Tokarczuk, a Polish writer who’s been awarded two international and prestigious writing prizes in the same year (2018): The Man Booker International and the Nobel Prize.
Despite the dead bodies—four possibly murdered and a fifth possibly killed by choking on the bone of a deer he slaughtered—this novel transcends the genre into which it’s usually relegated.
The title comes from a poem by William Blake whose work is being translated into Polish by the story narrator, Janina Duszejko, and her former student, Dizzy. It’s the second line of Blake’s Proverbs of Hell from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.
In seed time learn, in harvest teach, in winter enjoy.
Drive your cart and your plow over the bones of the dead.
The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.
Prudence is a rich ugly old maid courted by Incapacity.
He who desires but acts not, breeds pestilence.
I think this passage clues us into what Ms. Tokarczuk’s story is all about, particularly the motive behind the crimes. And it wouldn’t surprise me if she had written it precisely to illustrate—as well as promote—in fiction form messages we can glean from Blake’s writings, especially Proverbs of Hell. This becomes more obvious when you learn, in the Author’s Notes, that the quotes which introduce each chapter have been lifted from Blake.
Blake, underappreciated in his lifetime (1757-1827), is now considered a political radical who also championed nature and its creatures, as in Auguries of Innocence with its famous first lines:
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour
A Robin Red breast in a Cage
Puts all Heaven in a Rage
William Blake’s two-hundred-year-old ideas and concerns live on in this story written by a celebrated writer who’s also a modern-day political activist.
The story is straightforward enough. Its plot appropriates the tropes for the crime/murder mystery genre. Characters turn up dead and we’re kept in suspense til the third to the last chapter when the perpetrator is unmasked.
Though I have to admit the killer, when revealed, is a surprise to me, the plot isn’t what impressed me most. Rather, it’s how deeply nuanced the characterization is—maybe not surprising for Ms. Tokarczuk who trained as a psychologist.
Mrs. Duszejko isn’t the type of character readers usually get excited about. She’s old, eccentric, and intelligent (upsetting those who want to ignore and silence old people). She’s a strong believer, not in God, but in Astrology. I found her delightful.
For readers who go beyond treating this novel as a whodunit, it’s the depth of characterization that has invited various interpretations of what the story is all about. It is an indictment of man’s rapacious attitude to his environment. It is an analysis of the mind of a special kind of killer. One whose motive stems from respect, love, and defense of the earth and all its creatures. A motive which might excuse the perpetrator in the minds of those who’ve lamented the destruction of nature. But for some who deplore violence of any kind, this defense can be easily argued in this particular story as revenge. Many have also seen it as condoning eco-terrorism.