I worked as an English teacher in Warsaw for a number of years. I taught in rooms where my shabby shoes and corduroys raised eyebrows. I taught managers, CEOs at the top of glass-age monoliths, in glistening boardrooms suspended high above the city. On smoggy days at such a height, the world beyond the window was invisible.
In one such boardroom, a certain manager had come back from a recent vacation. He showed me his phone, scrolling through photos of men in camo jackets clutching rifles, wide-grinned and triumphant. In each picture the men stood astride the limp carcass of a wild boar, its fur flecked with dark blood. I was treated to a close-up, too. Though I cringed internally, I said nothing. Though I hadn’t thought of those images for a long time since, they came back to me incessantly as I read Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, originally published in Polish in 2009 and adapted into the film Spoor by Agnieszka Holland and Tokarczuk in 2017. The novel appeared in an English version by the celebrated translator, Antonia Lloyd-Jones, in 2018.
Our narrator, Janina Duszejko, a reclusive former English teacher now in her twilight years, turns detective when her pet dogs go missing and a series of murders begin to occur in her small village in southern Poland. When she is not scratching out ominous horoscopes for her neighbours or trying the patience of the local police with theories about the animal kingdom rising up to take revenge upon its human oppressors, she aids her former student, Dizzy, in translating the poetry of the English Romantic poet, painter and visionary, William Blake. He becomes the patron saint of Tokarczuk’s novel. Fragments of his verse appear as the epigraphs of each chapter, and indeed the title itself is taken from Blake’s “Proverbs of Hell”. Providing far more than window-dressing, the moral vision in Blake’s poetry is the chrysalis from which Tokarczuk’s strange cosmic recasting of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd emerges. Yes, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead is a whodunnit. But it is also a narrative that redefines the crime genre by expanding its borders to encompass a universal order of magnitude, one that feels strikingly pertinent as we lay waste to our planet, and the rate of species extinction skyrockets. Janina Duszejko’s outrage at human disregard for the non-human is presaged many times over by Blake:
Kill not the Moth nor Butterfly
For the Last Judgement draweth nigh
Our earthly crimes wrench the world out of its delicate balance. It is precisely this kind of expansive sympathy that seems to inspire Tokarczuk’s tapestry of Blake quotations. The vast majority of her epigraphs are taken from Blake’s posthumously published “Auguries of Innocence”. In the famous opening lines, Blake speaks of the cosmic interconnectedness of all things:
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
Duszejko lands upon a very similar thought, seeing the large within the small, the universal in the particular:
It’s clear that the largest things are contained in the smallest. There can be no doubt about it. At this very moment, as I write, there’s a planetary configuration on this table, the entire Cosmos if you like: a thermometer, a coin, an aluminium spoon and a porcelain cup. A key, a mobile phone, a piece of paper and a pen. And one of my grey hairs, whose atoms preserve the memory of the origins of life, of the cosmic Catastrophe that gave the world its beginning.
For her, this impulse finds expression not only in her belief that the motion of the celestial bodies resonates in objects and the earthly deeds and desires of human beings, but in her sense of moral rectitude. Polish readers of Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead will recognize in the narrator’s surname – Duszejko – an echo of the Polish word for ‘soul’ or ‘spirit’: dusza. She appears to embody precisely that which is absent in the immoral acts she observes all around her, reserving particular judgement for hunters and those who treat the natural world with disdain.
Poland is one of the most popular destinations in Europe for recreational hunting, and the practice carries traditional associations with the szlachta, or Polish nobility. Hunting was traditionally an important part of the lifestyle of the upper classes, whose representatives indulged in hunts, making the most of the rich wildlife living in the country’s dense forests, like hares, foxes, boars and deer. In Poland’s national epic, Pan Taduesz by Adam Mickiewicz, the poet valorises the figure of the hunter, comparing him to “a ship upon the sea”, roaming “far and wide […] by whatever path he will […]”
Like a prophet he gazes on the sky, where in the clouds there are many signs that the hunter’s eye can see; […] like an enchanter he talks with the earth […]
Late in Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, Duszejko describes a photograph of local men on a hunting trip, “fathers of families, exemplary citizens”, pillars of the community flaunting their morbid masculinity. Dressed like commandos, they “cut proud figures in their uniforms […]” Where Mickiewicz may have seen prophets communing with the beyond, Duszejko’s more dispassionate gaze falls upon “men in uniforms, in a row” standing above the “neatly arranged corpses of Animals”. She sees only the “best proof of a Crime one could possibly imagine.”
The issue of hunting is also a deeply political one in Poland. Just this year, the Law and Justice (PiS) Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, Jan Krzysztof Ardanowski, announced plans for extensive culling of the wild boar population in order to combat the spread of African Swine Fever. The plans were met with outrage among conservationists, who condemned the proposed cull as ill-conceived and inhumane. Protesters met before the Sejm in Warsaw, and hundreds of thousands signed an online petition entitled Stop rzezi dzików – “Stop the Slaughter of Wild Boar”. The dissonant chorus of clashing opinions is seemingly far from over, but voices like Janina Duszejko’s sometimes struggle to be heard over the booming bass of the state.
Duszejko recognizes no difference between hunter and murderer. As she listens to Father Rustle’s jubilant oration preceding the traditional hunt on St Hubert’s day, she equates the groundless slaughter of animals with the Holocaust:
Now it seemed clear to me why those hunting towers, which do after all bear a strong resemblance to the watchtowers in concentration camps, are called ‘pulpits’. In a pulpit Man places himself above other Creatures and grants himself to their life and death.
She has euphoric visions, reminiscent of the hunting scene in Flaubert’s “The Legend of St. Julian the Hospitaller”, in which cosmic justice is restored: a group of red foxes exact their bloody revenge upon Innerd, a rich owner of a slaughterhouse and meat-processing plant, by catching his foot in a snare and impaling him upon a hook.
Duszejko’s lamentations and ecstasies, as well having a source in Blake’s world-in-a-grain-of-sand principle, accord well with the deep ecology movement, which aims to reinterpret the human/non-human divide and recognize the inborn value of all living beings, the profound beauty of the diversity that humanity is so ready to annihilate for commercial and political purposes. For her, this involves a psychical shift on the deepest level: “[t]he 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…” This illusion, we surely gather, is the illusion of supremacy.
There is an undeniable nobility in Tokarczuk’s aims within this novel, but for this reader its ambitions were distorted by the time spent in the company of its narrator. Tokarczuk courts boredom, perhaps intentionally, in the manner of Beckett’s Molloy, an early entry in the odd genre of existential detective fiction. Like Beckett, she chooses for her narrator an exaggeratedly marginalized voice – an elderly amateur astrologist, a figure considered a “madwoman”, a “crazy old crone”, one who inspires exasperation in others. A voice, it is true, capable of great beauty, of humour and profundity, of an admirable feistiness. At times, the voice was more grating than compelling.
There were moments, however, when it occurred to me that voices like Janina Duszejko’s are silenced, disregarded or lampooned because of the ghastly light they cast upon the misdeeds of our species. How do we appear when we stand triumphant and grinning over the limp carcasses of wild boar dark with blood, when we stand upon pulpits and place ourselves “above other Creatures”, when we cage the “Robin Red breast”, kill the “Moth and Butterfly”, when the world beyond the window is invisible? I like to imagine Janina Duszejko the English teacher in that glistening boardroom as the manager scrolled through his hunting holiday snaps. Picture him in her darkest visions, returning home, his footsteps on the garden path, the hot breath of swine, nightmare of beasthood…
Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead
by Olga Tokarczuk
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones
Fitzcarraldo Editions (2018)