Olga Tokar­czuk Text Pub­lish­ing; $29.99

The Monthly (Australia) - - CONTENTS - by He­len El­liott

Well. Where to be­gin to ap­proach this daz­zling writer? No­bel lau­re­ate Svet­lana Alex­ievich used the word “mag­nif­i­cent” to de­scribe Olga Tokar­czuk’s work. Tokar­czuk is the Pol­ish writer who won this year’s Man Booker In­ter­na­tional Prize for the trans­lated edi­tion of her 2007 novel, Flights; now we have Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, first pub­lished in 2009. “Mag­nif­i­cent” is best ex­plained here by the prac­ti­cal ap­pli­ca­tion: I have or­dered all her trans­lated nov­els.

Dusze­jko, Tokar­czuk’s hero­ine, is a woman in her 60s who lives alone in a re­mote Pol­ish vil­lage close to the Czech bor­der. She used to be an en­gi­neer, and built some bridges in un­usual parts of the world; now she teaches English one morn­ing a week to the chil­dren in the vil­lage school. The rest of the time she looks after sev­eral hol­i­day houses for the sum­mer res­i­dents. Most of the novel takes place in mid-Euro­pean win­ter, that time of year when it is ob­vi­ous “that the world was not cre­ated for Mankind”. The snow buries ev­ery­thing, and this win­ter it is go­ing to bury sev­eral bod­ies. All men. All mur­dered. By? And why? This is what Dusze­jko and her friends want to know.

These friends are out­siders like her­self, and the acer­bic and in­tu­itive Dusze­jko has pri­vate names for each. As she does for her neigh­bours. Her near­est neigh­bour is the ob­ses­sively or­gan­ised tac­i­turn man she calls Od­dball, and it is his ham­mer­ing on her door one night that re­veals the first death and be­gins the in­ves­ti­ga­tion. Their other neigh­bour – she calls him by the tart Big­foot – is ly­ing dead in his liv­ing room. His dis­gust­ing liv­ing room, his more re­fined neigh­bours note.

With her young friend, Dizzy, Dusze­jko is trans­lat­ing the works of the great English poet and artist Wil­liam Blake into Pol­ish. It’s a near im­pos­si­ble task, but they per­sist with in­tel­lec­tual and emo­tional for­ti­tude. Blake’s words, in both his let­ters and po­ems, speak di­rectly to their sen­si­bil­i­ties. And then there is the as­trol­ogy. Dusze­jko’s as­trol­ogy is not the mag­a­zine daily star guide but life­long learn­ing based in al­ge­bra and eru­di­tion. She un­der­stands as­trol­ogy as a uni­ver­sal ex­pla­na­tion for an in­di­vid­ual con­di­tion, and ap­plies this con­junc­tion in her daily life. In ev­ery­thing she does, Dusze­jko ra­di­ates in­tel­li­gence.

Tokar­czuk is a writer who feels the heart­beat of the nat­u­ral world. The win­ter land­scape turn­ing to spring is fan­tas­ti­cal but not fan­tasy. It is also teem­ing with liv­ing crea­tures and this, of course, draws the hunters. Dusze­jko is one of those who can hear the noise on the other side of si­lence. Hunters are her mor­tal en­e­mies.

Each chap­ter has a Blake epi­graph, and the fi­nal chap­ter has this: “The tigers of wrath are wiser than the horses of in­struc­tion.” Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead is a thrilling demon­stra­tion of Blake’s words. Or is it a warn­ing? One of the ex­hil­a­ra­tions of this novel is work­ing through a com­plex truth about liv­ing among oth­ers on the beau­ti­ful blue planet. M

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