Driving Plows and Taking Names: Olga Tokarczuk's Vegan Noir



by Olga Tokarczuk

translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones

‘It’s dangerous to wander the neighbourhood – there are strange things going on around here,’ he said ominously.
— Olga Tokarczuk (Drive Your Plow Over The Bones Of The Dead)

After the success of Man Booker International Prize Winner Flights, Fitzcarraldo Editions return with a new Olga Tokarczuk novel. Drive Your Plow Over The Bones Of The Dead, far from the “constellation-novel” form of Flights that Tokarczuk opts for in many of her later works, presents itself as a reinvention of the gothic noir and crime novel. Originally published in Poland in 2009, Drive Your Plow was translated into English by Antonia Lloyd-Jones (an early excerpt of the novel published in Granta).

The novel is narrated by Janina Duszejko, a woman in her late sixties living alone in a remote village in the south west of Poland, near the border with the Czech Republic. In the opening chapter she is woken by her neighbour Oddball because their other neighbour, Big Foot, has died. His death seems to be an accident – he appears to have choked on a small bone from the deer he was eating - but this is just the beginning. As the narrative takes the form of murder mystery, albeit a non-conventional one, the novel becomes an exploration of its narrator and her worldview. By naming her neighbours Oddball and Big Foot, and naming almost every living creature she encounters, she questions the conventional use of names:

I believe each of us sees the other Person in our own way, so we should give them the name we consider suitable and fitting. [...] Unfortunately, I couldn’t choose a suitable name for myself. I regard the one that’s written on my identity card as scandalously wrong and unfair – Janina. [...] Meanwhile Oddball avoids calling me by my name like the plague. That means something too.
— Olga Tokarczuk (Drive Your Plow, p. 32-3)

This section is reminiscent of Susan Donnelly’s poem “Eve Names the Animals” and Ursula K. Le Guin’s “She Unnames Them”. Both pieces deal with the history of male privilege – a topic occasionally visited by Janina in the novel when she notes that the reason she is never taken seriously by people in her community is because old women seldom are – and draw imagery from the Bible to make the point that there is power in naming something or someone. This is exposed as an appointment of identity, the implications of which can vary from violence to a sense of ownership or belonging. While this is particularly true for Donnelly, Le Guin seems to be a more direct influence on Tokarczuk:

The council of elderly females finally agreed that though the name might be useful to others it was so redundant from the yak point of view that they never spoke it themselves, and might as well dispense with it.
— Ursula K. Le Guin ("She Unnames Them")

The two immediate parallels that can be drawn from these comparisons are Janina’s love for animals, which largely exceedes her love for people, and the biblical references. Significantly, one of the narrator’s few friends, Dizzy, spends most of his free time translating the works of William Blake. Blake’s influence on the novel is everywhere: the title is taken from his poem “Proverbs of Hell”, every chapter has an epigraph by William Blake, and Janina is often quoting him to other people when her own words fail her. Known for his own biblical references, Blake was particularly concerned with the Fall which followed the original sin. Janina’s major concern in the book is the one-sided relationship of cruelty between humans and animals – she is dead set against not only hunters, but also the rest of her community, which doesn’t perceive the violence that is regularly committed against animals. This soon takes, in her perception, the global proportion of humankind’s doom to punishment for the crimes committed against animals – a Fall from which there is no return.

In one of the most poignant moments of the novel, she delivers a soliloquy while trying to file a complaint with the City Guard:

What sort of world is this? Someone’s body is made into shoes, into meatballs, sausages, a bedside rug, someone’s bones are boiled to make broth… Shoes, sofas, a shoulder bag made of someone’s belly, keeping warm with someone else’s fur, eating someone’s body, cutting it into bits and frying it in oil… Can it really be true? [...] What sort of world is this, where killing and pain are the norm? What on earth is wrong with us?
— Olga Tokarczuk (Drive Your Plow, p. 114)

As Blake’s image of the Fall seeps into her worldview with increasing frequency, Janina takes on a fatalistic outlook, a staple of the noir detective-narrator. One of the strongest suits of the novel is in fact the subversion of the noir and gothic genre. As the gothic elements of German Expressionism found their way into film noir and became crucial in both its visual and formal representations, they subsequently translated into the noir novel as well. The isolated setting of Drive Your Plow, accentuated by the darkness of winter and the close-knit community that populates the novel, gives it the sinister undertones of a 19th century gothic work. The narrative takes the noir form mainly through the voice of Janina and the lens through which she presents the plot. As Big Foot’s death is followed by another, she is drawn closer to the investigation. While she doesn’t take the kind of interest a classic noir detective would take – her not being a detective fits the convention of the noir genre, where the main character is usually an amateur detective – she is perpetually developing the theory she presents to the authorities, which goes largely ignored: the animals are taking revenge on humans for the hunting and cruelty they have suffered. Old and consumed by an unnamed illness, she is cynical in the face of the injustices she observes, and while her anger and desperation at the situation burst through at times, she has long lost faith in humanity and refuses to participate in the decay of her society.

While the classic noir novel is plot-driven, Drive Your Plow hides the tension of the murder mystery underneath Janina’s existential struggle, with her contemplations on cosmic justice, morality, and rebellion against imposed authority. These are the prevailing noir themes, reinforced by more formal elements in the plot like the corruption of the police force and the moral ambiguity of the main characters. Janina’s reflections  usually lead to lines like “One has to tell people what to think. There’s no alternative. Otherwise someone else will do it,” and “Does evil always have to be punished at the end?” Her existential nihilism, not unlike that of the post-war noir protagonist, is perhaps most overt here:

The most precious memories will dissipate. Everything will sink into darkness and vanish. I noticed a pregnant girl sitting on the bench, reading a newspaper, and suddenly it occurred to me what a blessing it is to be ignorant. How could one possibly know all this and not miscarry?
— Olga Tokarczuk (Drive Your Plow, p. 130)

All these elements are turned on their head not only by means of focusing on the main character more than on the mystery, but also through a healthy dose of mysticism and magical realism which is reflected in Janina’s obsession with astrology – often an accessory to her fatalism – and her spiritual connection to the animals. The end result is a novel that, within the tweaked conventions of a popular and beloved form, presents a unique character exploration while simultaneously bringing forth a global social issue in a new and urgent way. Janina Duszejko is more than the sum of her experience and observations on life, and is certainly more than a mouthpiece for animal rights. Each one of those things, however, has a particular power in Tokarczuk’s writing and Lloyd-Jones’ translation, which does an exceptional job in capturing the narrator’s voice with its quasi-archaic words and expressions and old-fashioned eloquence.

Decidedly different from Flights in everything but quality of writing and meditations on humanity, Drive Your Plow Over The Bones Of The Dead is an excellent second entry for Tokarczuk’s English speaking audience.



BA English Literature, MSc Publishing. Translates novels because he doesn't have the patience to write one. Is probably listening to Roxy Music or Lorde at this very second.