Tag Archives: Polish literature

A murder mystery with a difference: Olga Tokarczuk, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead

Translated from the Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2018

Man Booker International prizewinner Olga Tokarczuk returns with this crime-mystery-noir novel set in rural Poland. Translated by the immensely skilled Antonia Lloyd-Jones, recipient of the 2018 award for promoting Polish literature abroad, it was a pretty safe bet that Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead was going to be amazing. Indeed, the translation is virtually flawless, and the book itself a page-turning extravaganza of understated tragi-comedy. The narrative is much more linear than that of Tokarczuk’s prize-winning Flights, and instead of the “fragments” and vignettes that peopled Flights, this is a more traditional story-telling. However, there is nothing predictable or formulaic about it for that, and it is not even “just” a story. There are philosophical reflections on life and death, acute observations of ageing and invisibility, and poignant reminders about the luxury of being able to cross borders, all of which are brought together seamlessly in a tale of vengeance, murder, and retribution in which “everything is connected with everything else, and we are all caught in a net of correspondences of every kind.”

Image from fitzcarraldoeditions.com

If you felt so inclined, you could easily read Drive Your Plow simply as a murder mystery; there is no didactic obligation to read it differently. But through her narrator, Mrs Duszejko, Tokarczuk also offers up some profound insights into the human condition (“The psyche is our defence system – it makes sure we’ll never understand what’s going on around us”), the lack of equality for women (“nobody takes any notice of old women who wander around with their shopping bags”), the elderly, (“once we have reached a certain age, it’s hard to be reconciled to the fact that people are always going to be impatient with us”) and the non-conformist (“suddenly I saw the four of us in a different way – as if we had a lot in common, as if we were a family. I realized that we were the sort of people whom the world regards as useless.”) She is scathing about the hypocrisy of social structures (including the police, the church, and the education system), but Drive Your Plow is also an indictment of animal cruelty, a reminder not to stand in judgement, not to dismiss those who are different from ourselves, and not to underestimate those we disagree with. Yet this is not a “preachy” novel (indeed, those who use pulpits – whether religious or hunting ones – tend to meet a sticky end); on the contrary, it’s thoughtful and thrilling.

As in any murder mystery, we are given several clues that we might gloss over. However, one overt clue comes after the discovery of the first dead body:

Only his right index finger refused to submit to the traditional pose of politely clasped hands but pointed upwards, as if to catch our attention and put a brief stop to our nervous, hurried efforts. ‘Now pay attention!’ said the finger. ‘Now pay attention, there’s something you’re not seeing here, the crucial starting point of a process that’s hidden from you, but that’s worthy of the highest attention. Thanks to it we’re all here in this place at this time, in a small cottage on the Plateau, amid the snow and the Night – I as a dead body, and you as insignificant, ageing human Beings. But this is only the beginning. Only now does it all start to happen.’

This is a novel of fate, of fatality, of fatalities, of fatalism. When you reach the end, you know there was no other way it could have gone: as Mrs Duszejko would say, it was all governed by the stars. It is not up to us to deem some things unimportant, Tokarczuk reminds us – the most insignificant detail or person may prove to be the key to enlightenment. I commented in my review of Flights that I believed we are given prompts for how to read it within the book itself, and this happens again with Drive Your Plow: the narrator tells us that “one must keep one’s eyes and ears open, one must know how to match up the facts, see similarity where others see total difference, remember that certain events occur at various levels or, to put it another way, many incidents are aspects of the same, single occurrence. And that that the world is a great big net, it is a whole, where no single thing exists separately; every scrap of the world, every last tiny piece, is bound up with the rest by a complex Cosmos of correspondences.” That this assertion is, primarily, about astrology, is no coincidence: Tokarczuk describes her writing as “constellation novels”, things that she throws up into space, and which the reader’s own imagination clusters together. And sure enough, when I went back over my notes, I realised that I had highlighted all the keys to the murder mystery, yet I had not managed to decode them until the end. For though we are given these clues, they are destabilised even as they are laid before us, as Tokarczuk makes a wry comment on writing itself, and on its ability to mean something other than what it says: “In a way, people like her, those who wield a pen, can be dangerous. At once a suspicion of fakery springs to mind – that such a Person is not him or herself, but an eye that’s constantly watching, and whatever it sees it changes into sentences: in the process it strips reality of its most essential quality – its inexpressibility.” I’ve noted before that Tokarczuk gave me the unsettling feeling that every original thought I might come up with had already been foreseen by her in the writing of her book, and this feeling was with me again as I thought about my reading of Drive Your Plow.

There is something deliberately old-fashioned about Drive Your Plow: certain nouns are given capitalisation (“Souls”, “Night”, “Person”, “Anger”, “Dusk”, etc), and there are near-archaic turns of phrase such as “whence they came” fairly regularly throughout. There is no mimicry of writing style, though; rather, it seems to be a nod to influences (such as William Blake, whose poetry stands by way of epigraphs to each chapter, and from whose work the title of the book is taken) and timeless subjects (such as corruption, prejudice, justice and compassion). Tokarczuk shows that inhumanity in all its forms, towards any living being, should not be commonplace, with Mrs Duszejko asking “what sort of a world is this, where killing and pain are the norm? What on earth is wrong with us?” Yet Mrs Duszejko does not distance herself from this “us”, though she is on the edges in so many ways. Indeed, the thing that most interested me in Drive Your Plow (apart from the murder mystery itself) was the reflection on marginalised people. The narrator is an older woman, living alone, and her love of animals and belief in astrology lead those around her to label her as a “silly old bag”, “crazy crone”, or “madwoman”. She observes how the law enforcers, either incompetent or corrupt, dismiss her easily because they need no excuse other than her age and gender. Though Mrs Duszejko is undeniably individual, Tokarczuk uses her to expose universal issues of gender inequality, ageism, and the human condition, with other characters on the margins either reinforcing or contradicting her position. Take, for example, this philosophical reflection from her elderly neighbour, an invalid lesbian author:

‘You know what, sometimes it seems to me we’re living in a world that we fabricate for ourselves. We decide what’s good and what isn’t, we draw maps of meanings for ourselves… And then we spend our whole lives struggling with what we have invented for ourselves. The problem is that each of us has our own version of it, so people find it hard to understand each other.’
There was some truth in what she said.

Though other characters are allowed to pontificate, Mrs Duszejko has the last word on where truth lies, what is truth and what is not, what is partial truth and what is nonsense. But be careful not to trust such a narrator and believe her blindly: as she herself reminds us, “One has to tell people what to think. There’s no alternative. Otherwise someone else will do it.”

Tokarczuk is a gifted writer, and the translation by Lloyd-Jones is excellent. I’ve been truly impressed with Fitzcarraldo’s publishing choices and the quality of their translations: on the whole, they are not “light reading” – indeed, they are mirrors of Mrs Duszejko’s description of the universe, “a complex Cosmos of correspondences”, but those I’ve read so far are the kind of books that stay with you, and to which you return. Necessary books, groundbreaking books, brave books. Mrs Duszejko says that “I love crossing borders”, and that is exactly what Tokarczuk’s work does: Fitzcarraldo director Jacques Testard actively sought out a Polish author as a response to the backlash against the Polish community in the UK following the Brexit referendum, and so in reading Olga Tokarczuk, we are not only enriched by this extraordinary author, but we are also resisting xenophobia and the narrowing of borders.

Review copy provided by FItzcarraldo Editions.

Man Booker International special: Olga Tokarczuk, Flights

Translated from the Polish by Jennifer Croft (Fitzcarraldo, 2017)

In honour of last night’s Man Booker International prize announcement, I’m publishing a special mid-week review post on the winning book, Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights. Though Tokarczuk is not yet as well-known in England as she is in Poland and in other parts of Europe, the award of the MBI prize to Jennifer Croft’s translation of Flights for Fitzcarraldo Editions will undoubtedly bring much-deserved attention to her work. In a recent interview, Croft says that she spent ten years trying to get Flights published, and her dedication to the text is evident throughout the translation. There were only a couple of turns of phrase or word choices that struck me as a little odd or incongruous, but when I checked these, they were perfectly standard uses of US English. So this leaves me with not a bad word to say about the translation: it is really quite beautiful. Flights is a remarkable book: observant, shrewd, philosophical and intricate, and I admire the quiet sensitivity, the range of accuracy and detail, and the depth of understanding of Tokarczuk’s text that Croft displays in her translation.

Image taken from https://fitzcarraldoeditions.com

The structure of Flights is not easy to define. It presents numerous stories of varying length – some invented, some based on historical fact, many (but not all) to do with the pickling and preserving of human bodies – and these are punctuated by the ongoing travelogue of an unnamed female narrator. Though the different stories are, for the most part, apparently unconnected, they all share common themes of movement, nomadism, and the convergence of time and place. From the harrowing tale of a mother and son vanished from a Croatian island in ‘Kunicki: Water (II)’ to the hilarious drunken sailor taking his ferryboat passengers out to the open sea in ‘Ash Wednesday Feast’, Flights is an eclectic collection of stories, and yet it is not a short story collection. It defies genre, blending short stories with travel narratives, and studies of human anatomy with philosophical musings on time and place. If there is any way of describing Flights, perhaps it is as ‘episodes’, a definition to be found within the pages of the book itself: ‘We often refer to separate stages of time as episodes. They have no consequences, interrupting time without becoming part of it. They are self-contained occurrences, each starting from scratch; each beginning and each end is absolute’. It is, however, revealing that Tokarczuk puts these words in the mouth of a young tour guide, ‘quite young, wearing army boots, her hair pinned up in a way I found amusing; she must have been fresh out of her master’s programme’. So although we are given hints as to how we might categorise this book, these are destabilised even as they are presented to us. At a later point, the narrator even muses on her choice of writing mode: ‘Am I doing the right thing by telling stories? Wouldn’t it be better to fasten the mind with a clip, tighten the reins and express myself not by means of stories and histories, but with the simplicity of a lecture, where in sentence after sentence a single thought gets clarified, and then others are tacked onto it in the succeeding paragraphs?’

Ouch. So maybe I shouldn’t try to analyse this at all, but rather refer you to Claire Armitstead’s explanation of Tokarczuk’s own view of Flights, namely that ‘what she calls her “constellation novels” throw stories, essays and sketches into orbit, allowing the reader’s imagination to form them into meaningful shapes’. I think, though, that Tokarczuk’s own definition doesn’t do justice to her cleverly crafted work. For example, if you’re still wondering what pickling human bodies has to do with travel writing, Tokarczuk gently explains it on the penultimate page, when her narrator, waiting for a flight, takes out a notebook and writes about another passenger, also waiting for a flight, and also writing in his notebook (possibly about her): ‘We will simply write each other down, which is the safest form of communication and of transit; we will reciprocally transform each other into letters and initials, immortalize each other, plastinate each other, submerge each other in formaldehyde phrases and pages’. The book itself becomes a preserved artefact – and yet it doesn’t, because it will shift and transform with every reading of it.

Is your mind boggling yet? Let’s talk about the title for a moment, then. The translated title has come under scrutiny, as there was no word in English that could cover all meanings of the original title, Bieguni. Kapka Kassabova writes of bieguni that ‘this word is the key to the book […] The bieguni, or wanderers, are an obscure and possibly fictional Slavic sect who have rejected settled life for an existence of constant movement’.  I like the idea of ‘wanderings’ rather than ‘flights’ (though it would have made for an awful title), as many of the tales in Flights deal with journeys that are not airborne. The problem of translating the title is further complicated by Monique Charlesworth’s revelation that bieguni ‘also has the meaning of running or jogging in every Slavic language, says Tokarczuk; that also defined her book in a certain way’.

I do like a knotty translation problem. Although ‘flights’ may not suggest ‘wandering’ and ‘running’, it brings other implications to the English translation that enrich the work: Flights offers a birds-eye view, it takes flight, it flees. It is an action, an act, a trajectory, the passage of time, a flock, a stairway between different levels of meaning.

“It’s slightly unnerving that every original observation I might *think* I’ve come up with about this book has already been foreseen by its author”

As for the content, I found the focus on human anatomy a little uncomfortable – get me near a scalpel and I’ll become squeamish – but the observations on the preservation of human bodies or body parts was nonetheless a thought-provoking counterpoint to the nomadism elsewhere. Tokarczuk dissects and disrupts preconceived notions of what constitutes ‘movement’ or ‘stasis’ as the mapping out of the human body becomes its own form of topography. Connections are drawn between anatomy and travel narratives: Chopin’s heart makes a posthumous journey from Paris to his desired resting place in Warsaw; the ‘phantom pain’ of a 17th-century anatomist whose leg was amputated is echoed in the ‘phantom pain’ felt by the modern-day Kunicki in the second part of his story, when his wife and child are returned to him but his wife refuses to tell him where they went. But if you think I’ve made a clever connection off my own bat, think again: Tokarczuk urges us to find these connections, because ‘there are different kinds of looking. One kind of looking allows you to simply see objects, useful human things, honest and concrete, which you know right away how to use and what for. And then there’s panoramic viewing, a more general view, thanks to which you notice links between objects, their network of reflections’. It’s slightly unnerving that every original observation I might *think* I’ve come up with about this book has already been foreseen by its author.

Perhaps this is the reason why reviewers have noted that, though they admired Flights, it is a difficult book to write about: Michael Kitto describes it as a novel ‘that should be experienced rather than written about’, and Ken Calfus found it to be ‘a dense challenging novel [that] makes for slow reading’. I must admit that I was quite relieved to find I wasn’t alone in finding this a challenging read. This does not in any way detract from my admiration of Flights, but it was certainly a different kind of experience than most of the novels I’m reading for this project. There were sections I enjoyed more than others: my favourite was the one entitled ‘Flights’, in which the bieguni appear. The protagonist, Annushka, needs to escape her daily life, and in her wanderings through monuments and crowds, she begins to follow a shrouded woman who is always muttering something to herself. Everything about this story is imbued with double meanings; take for instance Annushka’s observation of two particular passengers on her metro journey: ‘Why does she remember those two? I suspect because they’re constant, somehow, as though they moved differently, more slowly. Everyone else is like a river, a current, water that flows from here to there, creating eddies and waves, but each particular form, being fleeting, disappears, and the river forgets about them. But those two move against the current, which is why they stand out the way they do’. Couldn’t we say the same of particular episodes in Tokarczuk’s collection? And yet even as I write this, I suspect that Tokarczuk had already thought of that.

Flights is about movement, both outside and inside, physical journeys around the world and psychological journeys within oneself. It is about nomadism and spirituality (for, after all, ‘Blessed is he who leaves’). It is about connections – with places, people, ideas – and it is a rallying cry against capitalism and consumerism, against the ‘frozen order’ created to ‘falsify time’s passage’. It is about knowledge itself, but not about imprisoning or codifying knowledge in encyclopaedias or guidebooks: indeed, as Kunicki’s story shows us, the desire for too much knowledge might make us lose everything. Tokarczuk is both erudite and quick-witted (for her incisive comment, look no further than the 16-line interlude ‘North Pole Expeditions’ or the 4-line ‘Even’), and if there is a challenge in this book, it is more than just the difficulty of categorising it, or its denseness. It is the impossibility of describing time itself: ‘Moments, crumbs, fleeting configurations – no sooner have they come into existence than they fall to pieces’. Flights may not be an easy read, but it’s an extraordinarily beautiful one.

Review copy provided by FItzcarraldo Editions.