DRIVE YOUR PLOW OVER THE BONES OF THE DEAD

‘Don’t you have a torch?’ he asked. Of course I had one, but I wouldn’t be able to tell where it was until morning, in the daylight. It’s a feature of torches that they’re only visible in the daytime.

DRIVE YOUR PLOW OVER THE BONES OF THE DEAD, by Olga Tokarczuk as translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones.  It’s a crime story.  It’s also a study in isolation and mental illness.  And a masterclass in literary eccentricity.

He was a man of very few words, and as it was impossible to talk, one had to keep silent. 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.

The protagonist’s narration is just fascinating, and a joy to read. She lives on a plateau, somewhere in southern Poland near the Czech border, shares with a few other hermit types and a lot of animals.  One night, one of those hermit types is found to have died. And the protagonist finds evidence suggesting it may not have been a simple death.

I don’t want to say a lot more about it, save that the mystery – and the deaths that follow – tangle up the supernatural with the ecological and the social and even the literary, without ever really breaking the spell of one estranged and lonely and ageing woman who is a head smarter than anyone else she knows dealing with loss and damage and distance and an unexplained death that nobody else seems to want to solve.

Everything was starting to crackle, I could sense a feverish vibration under the grass, under the layer of earth, as if vast, underground nerves, swollen with effort, were just about to burst. I was finding it hard to rid myself of the feeling that under it all lurked a strong, mindless will, as repulsive as the force that made the Frogs climb on top of each other and endlessly copulate in Oddball’s pond.

It is marvellous and kind of heartbreaking and another phenomenal choice from one of my favourite publishers, Fitzcarraldo.  There’s nothing else quite like it.

The fact that we don’t know what’s going to happen in the future is a terrible mistake in the programming of the world. It should be fixed at the first opportunity.

DRIVE YOUR PLOW OVER THE BONES OF THE DEAD, by Olga Tokarczuk (UK) (US)