Tag Archives: Flights

Drive Your Plow over the Dead Bones by Olga Tokarczuk

Even if you can’t say her name (and I can’t) you cannot have missed the presence of Olga Tokarczuk on the literary scene. Flights won the Man Booker International Prize in 2018 and she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature for 2018. (It came a year late due to some politicking which is irrelevant.) Many of her compatriots celebrate her creativity. Most pleasing, passengers on public transport in the city of Wroclaw were allowed to travel free if they were carrying one of her books on the weekend that the award was announced. Jacek Dehnel, poet and translator, says ‘she is the greatest writer in my language today’. 

There are others in Poland who see her as anti-Catholic, unpatriotic, leftist and suggest that she has promoted eco-terrorism. This last charge probably relates to Drive Your Plow over the Dead Bones in which hunters in the narrator’s village are being picked off. Does she deserve the criticism or the accolades?

Many readers of the blog will know that I am championing fiction containing older women. This will be the 44th in the series. I am trying to read more novels in translation since I was guest host on Global Literatures in August, looking at older women around the world. This novel was suggested to me by Emma Wallace the producer of the BBC radio programme Women’s Hour. It featured a discussion of  fiction by, for and about older women in which I took part in August.

Drive Your Plow over the Dead Bones

From the start this novel presents itself as a bit of a mystery. There is the title, a quotation from the unorthodox English poet and visionary William Blake. His work features at the head of each chapter and in the subject matter of the novel as the protagonist is helping her former pupil and Blake-enthusiast to translate Blake into Polish. I do not understand the title.

The mystery is also in the subject matter. Who is killing the hunters in this border village? The narrator, Janina Duszejko (or Mrs Duszejko as she prefers) lost her two precious dogs to hunters and she spreads the idea that it is the animals taking their revenge. But the story also has the qualities of a fable in that animals have magical qualities. 

The story is located in a village on the border between Poland and the Czech Republic, on the margins of two countries. Like the narrator, the village is out of kilter. Poland is compared unfavourably to the country across the border where all is perfect. The village empties every winter. Events often take place at night when it is hard to see clearly. The murders occur periodically and the police are confused by the evidence. The narrator is drawn into the search to identify the murderer. 

Mrs Duszejko has some friends, also outsiders: Oddball her neighbour, Good News a friendly woman who keeps a secondhand clothes shop, Dizzy a former pupil, and Boros the etymologist. They help each other and form a loose social group.

The themes of the novel concern the treatment of animals, ageism, being outsiders and it has a definite political edge. 

The older woman

The narrator Mrs Duszejko is in her 60s and something of an oddity, considered so by the authorities, partly because she is old and lives on her own and is a vegetarian. She does not live as an older woman is expected to. She doesn’t know she should sing at a funeral, remove herself from the scene of a hunting when instructed by the hunters, wears what she likes, is single. She finds herself treated as older women are, that is ignored most of the time, patronised at other times. Her behaviour frequently confuses those who question her, and the reader. She writes weirdly, with capital letters for many but not all nouns. She also suffers from Ailments, which are never clarified or defined, nor do they appear to limit her activities a great deal.

She is also discounted because she is passionate. For example her letter to the police does not receive an answer, despite asking for explanations of some important aspects of the murders. Like all old women, and many old men, she is ignored and made invisible.

Here is her account of her meeting with the police commander.

I could almost hear his thoughts – in his mind I was definitely a ‘little old lady’, and once my accusatory speech was gathering strength, ‘a silly old bag’, ‘crazy old crone’, or ‘madwoman’. I could sense his disgust as he watched my movements and cast (negative) judgement on my taste. He didn’t like my hairstyle, or my clothes, or my lack of subservience. He scrutinized my face with growing dislike. (35)

And here is another older woman, the Writer, who suggests this with Mrs Duszejko’s agreement.

‘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.’ (221)

Mrs Duszejko studies astrology, and this was an aspect of the novel I found hard to understand. Perhaps it is as good a way of understanding the world as any?

Olga Tokarczuk

She writes novels that are in ‘the continental tradition of the thinking novel’ (Kapka Kassabova in The Guardian). It could be seen as a simple mystery, but identifying the perpetrator of the crimes is not the most important aspect of this book. More significant questions are posed.

The smoother argument made in “Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead” is that conforming to nature is sanity, whereas conforming to humanity is idiocy. To be in constant grief due to the cruelty of man is not misanthropy, it’s pure logic. “What sort of a world is this, where killing and pain are the norm?” Duszejko asks. “What on earth is wrong with us?

From August 2019 New York Times review by Sloane Crosely.

This is an inventive writer, one who changes her approach and who is making a name for herself, and perhaps for Polish fiction. I am on the side of the applause. She does that excellent job in fiction of showing us the world as we do not normally see it, and this time through the eyes of an older, activist woman.

Drive Your Plow over the Dead Bones by Olga Tokarczuk, first published in Polish in 2010 and in English in 2018 by Fitzcarraldo Editions. Translated from the Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones. 266pp

Flights by Olga Tokarczuk, translated by Jennifer Croft from the Polish and also published by Fitzcarraldo Editions. My review can be found here.

And some blogs I found useful in reading Drive Your Plow are The Lonesome Reader and Translating Women.

Here are some recent additions to the Older Women in Fiction series:

The Little Old Lady by Catharina Ingleman-Sundberg

The Boston Girl by Anita Diamant

Meet Me at the Museum  by Anne Youngson

Eleanor and Abel  by Annette Sanford (guest post)

See also a comprehensive list including many recent recommendations by readers, on the page called About the Older Women in Fiction Series.

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Filed under Books, Feminism, Older women in fiction, Reading, Reviews, Women in Translation

Flights by Olga Tokarczuk

Flights by Olga Tokarczuk took me several weeks to read. It was a slow read. But I persevered because it was my choice for August in Bookword’s monthly Women in Translation series. In addition it won the Man Booker International Prize in 2018. And August is also celebrated as #womenintranslation month on twitter and several blogs.

Flights by Olga Tokarczuk Translated by Jennifer Croft from the Polish.

Reading Flights

It is not easy to read a book that does not follow a single line, does not build plot and characters through one scene following another. This novel resists linearity. It is a collection of 116 vignettes, some fictional, some nonfiction, some no more than notes or ‘philosophical riffs’ (Adam Mars-Jones in LRB).

Olga Tokarczuk told the New York Times:

I realized that we don’t travel in such a linear way anymore but rather jump from one point to another and back again. So I got this idea for a ‘constellation’ novel recounting experiences that were separate from each other but could still be connected on different psychological, physical and political levels. (From Olga Tokarczuk’s Book ‘Flights’ is Taking Off, New York Times, August 2018)

Since completing the book a few days ago I have puzzled about how to write this post. I read many reviews, mostly from literary pages. I have come to see that it is an intelligent, rich and rewarding experience, in ‘the continental tradition of the thinking novel’ (Kapka Kassabova in The Guardian).

The title in Polish is Bieguni, for which Flights is not an exact translation. Rather the Polish title might be closer to wandering or wanderers, or even refer to a sect, possibly mythical. A member makes a memorable appearance in a story set in Moscow, traversing the city endlessly on the metro.

The themes with which Flights is concerned are travel and the human body. The novel has been described as a constellation of stories, and although several reviews indicated a similarity with WG Sebald, this lack of linearity distinguishes them. (They may also be referring to the illustrations included but not explained or referred to in the text, something one also finds in Sebald’s novels.)

I especially enjoyed the passages where the unnamed sort-of narrator muses on experiences, such as what happens to time, and the body’s experience of time.

IRKUTSK – MOSCOW

Flight from Irkutsk to Moscow. It takes off at 8 am and lands in Moscow at the same time – at eight o’clock in the morning on that same day. It turns out to be right at sunrise, which means that the whole flight takes place during dawn. Passengers remain in this one moment, a great, peaceful Now, vast as Siberia itself.

So there should be time enough for confessions of whole lifetimes. Time elapses inside the plane but doesn’t trickle out of it. (232)

The stories, like journeys, begin and are left without warning. Some reappear. A woman and child go missing for 72 hours on holiday on a Croatian island. Her husband is eaten up by what they did when they were away from him and he is unable to accept his wife’s explanation. There are rough living Muscovites, including a woman who is escaping from her caring responsibilities for her disabled son; the history of some seventeenth century dissectors; a restless sailor who has drifted to an archipelago and runs the ferry, and who one day takes flight with its passengers; a researcher who returns to Poland to visit her first love and to make him an ultimate gift; a professor who cares for her older husband as he lectures on a Greek island cruise ship … and so on.

Olga Tokarczuk trained as a psychologist and for Flights she invents a psychology of travel, a kind of opposite of traditional psychology, studying people in transit rather than in a fixed context. Studying people on the move, their reactions to different circumstances challenges the idea of ‘any sort of consistent whole’. (83) We are ourselves a constellation. The idea of a fixed identity is flawed. I love the idea of lectures in airports, where people can expand such ideas to travellers caught in the departure lounge.

Not for nothing did Matthew Turner in his review on Quietus suggest the novel is a ‘cabinet of curiosity’. Such a description is a reminder that such a varied novel will be experienced differently by each reader, who will respond to it individually.

Olga Tokarczuk

Olga Tokarczuk was born in Poland, and not able to travel until she was 28 due to restrictions by the Communist regime. She later travelled extensively, and her reflections indicate deep thought about the meaning of travel, especially for the human body.

She has published 8 novels, two collections of short stories and also poetry.

Flights by Olga Tokarczuk, first published in 2007, and in the English translation by Fitzcarraldo Books in 2018. 417pp. Translated by Jennifer Croft from the Polish. Winner Man Booker International Prize 2018

For another review see Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings.

Women in translation series

Every month I review a book by a woman in translation on this blog. Here are some recent posts with links.

So Long a Letter by Mariama Bâ, translated from the French by ModupéBodé-Thomas

Go, Went, Goneby Jenny Erpenbeck, translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky.

Love by Hanne Østavik, translated from the Norwegian by Martin Aitken

Brother in Iceby Alicia Kopf, translated from the Catalan by Mara Faye Lethem.

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Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews, Women in Translation