The title of this strange murder mystery set in Poland comes from “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” by the prophetic British poet William Blake (1757-1827), whose work figures throughout the book. Olga Tokarczuk, the Nobel Prize-winning author, tells the tale through the addled and unreliable account of a dotty older woman in a tiny Silesian hamlet. The narrator, known to her neighbors as Mrs. Janina Duszejko, is a passionate devotee of astrology and views the unfolding events of the book through the prism of the stars. And as first one murder then a series of others take place near her home, she appears to grow increasingly disturbed and erratic.
An unreliable narrator, Polish-style
Janina Duszejko seems to be an ideal narrator for this strange murder mystery. She despises her name and grows agitated whenever anyone calls her Janina. In fact, she routinely identifies other people and animals not by name but by some descriptive moniker such as Big Foot, Oddball, Dizzy, and Black Coat for people and, in the case of her two beloved dogs, Little Girls. Janina writes in a style reminiscent not of Polish, her native language, but German, in which nouns are frequently capitalized. Thus, she speaks of her Ailments and of a neighbor as a Person. She pesters the people she meets for the date and exact time of their birth and then devotes hours on end to analyzing their star charts. But, she admits, “I’m not a good Astrologer, unfortunately.”
Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk (2019) 283 pages @@@@ (4 out of 5)
Winner of the 2018 Nobel Prize for Literature
However, it gradually becomes clear that Janina is an educated woman. She was employed for many years as a bridge construction engineer and, when her Ailments forced her to leave that work, became a schoolteacher. Except for part-time work teaching English to the local village schoolchildren, she is now retired.
Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead is set in the province of Silesia. It’s a region now largely within the southwestern border of Poland but historically has shifted national allegiance many times. Her fictional village, Luftzug (meaning “breeze” or “draft” in German), hugs the border of the Czech Republic.
A peculiar mystery set in Poland
Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead opens with Janina Duszejko’s neighbor, Oddball, pounding on her door in the middle of the night to announce that Big Foot has died. Their neighbor is an unpleasant man whose dog howls all night long because he has been locked in a shed. He has apparently choked to death on a bone from a deer he had killed.
Not one death but several. Is a serial killer at work?
But Big Foot’s death is only the first in the area, and several subsequent deaths are by no means accidental. The Commandant of the local police. The President of the Mushroom Pickers’ Society. And Innerd, “the richest man in the neighborhood,” who appears to be connected with the mafia. “All three had died from a heavy blow to the head.” Janina insists all these men (including Big Foot) have been murdered by Animals who are taking revenge against the men as hunters.
Janina insists the Animals killed them
And Janina doesn’t stop by sharing this opinion with Oddball, Dizzy, Good News, and others she considers friends. She writes long, detailed letters filled with astrological observations to the police, demanding that they investigate the Animals. Did I say the woman was dotty? The word doesn’t do her justice.
I found the novel hard going at times because of Janina’s protracted musings about astrology. But the book is undeniably well written and competently translated, and Tokarczuk unravels her mystery with a sure hand.
About the author
Polish author Olga Tokarczuk (born 1962) trained as a psychologist at the University of Warsaw. She is a leftist, a vegetarian, an atheist, and a feminist. Her novels, short stories, and poems have won her numerous literary awards, including the Man Booker International Prize as well as the Nobel Prize for Literature. In addition to this murder mystery set in Poland, she has written eight other novels, five nonfiction books, two volumes of short stories, and one of poetry.
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