When Olga Tokarczuk won the Man Booker Prize last year my mum bought me some of her books that I haven’t read. When I was in university I read a few of her books and liked them a lot, then I stopped and years later I was wondering if I’d still like them, given their slow, meditative pace. I got back on the horse with House of Day, House of Night, which proved easily that my fear was unjustified. Last year I got from my mum Flights and Drive Your Plow… Both in Polish, so I still cannot say how good the translations are, but I do hope they are fantastic.
I’m planning on reading Flights in English translation at some point, as an experiment, it does not happen often to me to be able to read the same books in two languages. The one opportunity I had was Jo Nesbo, where I read his first books in Polish translation and I didn’t like them much, only to be blown away by the English translation of The Snowman.
Drive Your Plow… is told by Janina Duszejko, an older woman living in a remote area of Poland, Kotlina Kłodzka. She is an astrologist, translates William Blake with her friend and passionately loves animals. The story starts in winter, Duszejko living on her own, with only two relatively nearby neighbours, she can go for days without human contact. Not that she longs for it. One of her jobs is to take care of the summer houses of the rich people living in the capital, another to be a part-time teacher in the town a few kilometres away.
She also hates her first name and despises the act of giving names, by the parents, claiming that they can never reflect the personality of the person that the baby will become. Because of this, she renames all of the people she knows with what she deems are more suitable names, and indeed they are; the names she gives them already provide a glimpse into their personality. Gradually we get to know her past, though we never fully find out how she ended up where she is now. She is deeply attuned to the rhythm of nature, sensitive to the slightest changes, not least because of her fragile physical condition that seems to be deeply bound to nature.
I’m writing so much about her because she is our voice and we see the world and events through her eyes (and that’s nothing special as she is our narrator), but also because she is a very distinct personality. We automatically choose to be on her side when she starts telling the story, people naturally ally themselves with the storyteller. But as she comes to contact with the outside world we realize, she is not a person that others listen. She escaped societal norms and with that renounced her voice, she is seen as the ‘crazy old lady’ and even when she has a point it is lost in people’s disdain for her.
As you can see the story is very much driven by the character, but do not be fooled, there is also a plot. Tokarczuk plays with the genres and here she gives us a twisted thriller. It all starts with the death of one of Duszejko’s neighbours, The Big Foot. She and the other neighbour find the body, the man clearly choked on a roe’s bone. The police are called and the matter dealt with quite routinely. Until other people start dying…all of them are hunters.
Duszejko tries to share her theory with everyone, but no one listens, she believes the animals have had enough. Enough of patience, enough of slaughter. The time has come for revenge and it is not revenge exacted, as we may expect by the predators like wolves, it is the revenge of the vulnerable, the grass-eaters, made bloodthirsty by human cruelty. I’ll leave the story here, there’s much more to discover.
It is also a portrait of a small town, where the policeman and the priest wield power. Where patriarchy is still well entrenched and where outsiders have no voice. But most of all it is a meditation of nature, of the windswept valley, that is hostile in winter and dangerously beautiful in the summer. As Duszejko tells us at one point, the world is not made for humans. We are not the centre of the universe we think we are. Nature has more important things to deal with than us, or than making our life easy and comfortable. Nature’s scale and power put us firmly in our place.
The book is also a meditation on ageing, with Duszejko knowing she won’t be able to remain in this remote place for much longer due to her illness. She dreads it, hates the weakness that will banish her from the place where she feels she belongs. As we discover her story, we are made to realize that we often judge people easily by who they seem to be now, without ever knowing what made them the way they are.
Tokarczuk weaves her story masterly. She keeps the pace going, but also finds time and place for those moments of meditation where we have to face our humanity with its faults. She also finds space for humour, I chuckled multiple times while reading the book, as Duszejko’s characteristics of people she interacts with are often spot on. The way Tokarczuk manages to take a popular genre and convert it into literature, without taking the fun away is really masterly. A combination of a book that makes you stop and think, while you continue to turn the pages (I know it’s not the most coherent image, but this somehow happens).
For those of you in London, there will be a Man Booker Prize event in Foyles, Charing Cross Road on the 16th May, with the shortlisted translators discussing their work.
Have you read any of Tokarczuk’s books? Do you enjoy them or are they boring and too convoluted?