In 2007, Olga Tokarczuk had just published her novel Flights in Poland, where it would go on to be a bestseller and win the 2008 Nike Award, the country’s most prestigious literary prize; a decade later, it would win the Man Booker International Prize in an English translation by Jennifer Croft. But after she finished writing Flights, Tokarczuk was uncomfortable. She had developed a fear of flying—the novel features restless narratives that wander across multiple countries—and started longing to stay in one place. But that wasn’t the only problem.
“I really had started to run out of money to live on,” Tokarczuk tells me from her home in Poland. “When we talk about books, we rarely talk about the economic side of writing, especially of writing literary works, and that, at base, it’s a pretty costly enterprise.”
At the time, Tokarczuk was already several years into what would become The Books of Jacob, a 900-page polyphonic novel about controversial 18th-century religious leader Jacob Frank (which would net Tokarczuk her second Nike in 2015; it will be published in English in 2020, translated by Croft). It was her most ambitious book to date and she needed money to continue researching, so she came up with a logical solution, for a writer: write another book.
“I decided to write a crime novel,” she says. “That genre was at the height of its popularity in Poland, so I thought it might earn me a bit of cash to go on with my work on The Books of Jacob. I shut myself away for a few months and devoted myself entirely to Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead. I was slightly concerned that breaking the continuity of one book in favor of another might not be a good idea, but it worked.”
Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, will be published in the U.S. this month, 10 years after its original Polish publication. It’s a mystical detective novel—the title comes from a William Blake line—that follows Janina Duszejko, a woman in her 60s who lives alone in hamlet tucked in the wilderness of Poland’s Kłodzko Valley, in the southwest region of Lower Silesia, near the Czech border. From the story’s opening, the reader senses the genre conventions: Janina is woken up in the night by the knocks of her neighbor, whom she calls Oddball, who reports that their neighbor Big Foot (another of Janina’s names) is dead in his house. Not long after, the body of the local police commandant turns up in the snow. Janina notices a smattering of animal prints around the commandant’s body, leading her to posit to the local authorities—all men—that the animals are taking revenge on people because of the area’s barely-enforced hunting rules. Soon, another body is found. And then another.
But with Tokarczuk behind the murder mystery, the whodunit is a sort of Trojan horse, a container for her to explore, with characteristic complexity and rigor, a whole host of deeper concerns, including animal rights, morality, fate, and how one life fits into the world around it. For her, simply finding out the identity of the murderer would be boring.
“I’ve never been a great fan of crime fiction,” Tokarczuk says. “I read Agatha Christie in my youth, but that’s all. I’ve often felt that in the process of pursuing the perpetrator of a crime and trying to arrange the facts into a logical sequence, the complex, less obvious psychological motives get lost, the social context doesn’t get described in an incisive way, and no atmosphere is created.”
Both as a reader and writer, Tokarczuk brings a set of lofty expectations to a novel, which she regards as the highest literary form. “I expect novels, including crime fiction, to be multifaceted and to work on many planes,” she says. “A novel should tell a story, be a pleasure to read, and at the same time it should be thought-provoking, even a bit instructive. I still believe in the social function of literature, that literature can change things, it can have an influence on reality, or even generate it. I fully realized that many years ago, the first time a publisher sent me a sales report, and I read with pride and disbelief that tens of thousands of people had bought one of my books. It made me aware that what I say matters.”
Tokarczuk expects a novel “to force an intellectual and mental confrontation. That means sometimes it has to hurt, sometimes it has to be rough and uncomfortable.” She adds, “I like black humor, too.”
Tokarczuk’s three previous works translated into English—House of Day, House of Night (2003), Primeval and Other Times (2010), and Flights (2018)—employ a “constellation” style: they’re structured in far-ranging fragments that hopscotch between different times, places, and perspectives. House of Day and Primeval are mosaics of small Polish communities composed of clusters of stories about their residents; Flights nimbly searches out and plucks stories from all over the map, including that of Flemish anatomist Philip Verheyen’s discovery of the Achilles tendon in the 17th century—from dissecting his own leg.
“The novel allows us to step outside the boundaries of our own self, and to spend time in someone else’s skin—and then we find that the world isn’t black and white after all,” Tokarczuk says. “Literature broadens our awareness, and in a way it’s the guarantor of a healthy psyche.”
Throughout her novels, she demonstrates a command of switching focus from the granular and the individual to the cosmic and the momentous. One astounding passage that represents her style, concerns, and skill is the fragment about Peter Dieter from House of Day, House of Night.
The seven-page fragment is about a German man who travels to Lower Silesia, the region of Poland that Tokarczuk’s work consistently explores and where she now lives, to revisit the place where he grew up. Peter was one of the hundreds of thousands of Germans who lived in the region but were evacuated after World War II, when it became part of Poland. At that point, Polish citizens were given the property of the evacuated Germans. The unsettled Peter hopes that seeing where he came from will bring clarity to his life. Yet when he gets there, he can’t even recognize his own village, which has shrunk and drastically changed in appearance. He walks on alone to a mountain panorama, and feels a moment of peace looking at the view “that he had carried inside him all this time.” But as he climbs on, still higher, he finds himself completely out of breath. He wonders what it would be like to die in this moment (“For some reason this idea seemed funny”), starts to eat a piece of chocolate, and dies. His body ends up lying with one foot in the Czech Republic and one foot in Poland. The Czech border guards find Peter first, horrified at the chocolate stream dribbling out of his mouth. One begins to use his radio to report the body, but it’s dusk and they want to go home and eat dinner, so they pull him onto the Polish side of the border, then leave. Half an hour later, the Polish border guards find Peter. They drag him onto the Czech side and leave. And as Peter’s soul departs forever, the last image he sees is of a wooden nativity scene from his youth: among the wooden cows and wooden dogs, “two pairs of little wooden soldiers carry Peter Dieter’s wooden body from one side to the other for all eternity.”
The fragment contains some of Tokarczuk’s broader throughlines—near-mythic inevitability, borders, responsibility, the churn of history—but it does so through the detailed, precise view of a single life. The resulting effect of this dizzying shuttling between a super low-to-the-ground view and a wider one is that it feels like the perspective of a Tokarczuk novel, limited as all are and in spite of the impossibility of the task, is nonetheless trying to gather everything, to account for as much as it can. Her books never lose sight of the individual within the whole, and the reader is always aware of the swirl of factors—geographic, biological, spiritual, historical—that have added up to bring her characters their fates.
For Tokarczuk’s American readers, Drive Your Plow takes a new—and possibly more accessible—narrative route: it does away with the constellation style. Janina’s limited, first-person perspective squeezes maximum tension out of its murder mystery; readers know only what the idiosyncratic Janina chooses to tell us (and that’s often trying to decipher her abstruse astrological calculations). But Drive Your Plow, like Tokarczuk’s other books, features wide-lens observations. Janina shares her views on, among many others, local flora (flowers in a garden “are neat and tidy, standing straight and slender, as if they’d been to the gym”), the body (that “our cerebellum has not been correctly connected to our brain,” meaning we lack full knowledge of our own anatomy and what's troubling it, rendering the body “a troublesome piece of luggage”), the apoptosis of the world (“Reality has grown old and gone senile”), and the stars (“Finally, transformed into tiny quivering photons, each of our deeds will set off into Outer Space, where the planets will keep watching it like a film until the end of the world”). The wrinkle of getting these observations through Janina’s eyes is a large part of what makes Drive Your Plow so compelling.
Tokarczuk says that the right voice for the story is always the most important thing for her when constructing a book. “From the start I knew the story had to be told in the first person, and I spent a long time trying to piece together various features of the narrator,” she says. “She needed to be an elderly woman, she had to be eccentric, both irritating and sympathetic at once. A little bit freaky. The whole thing turns on the reader identifying with her and liking her in spite of initial resistance.”
In discussing the origin of Janina’s voice, Tokarczuk says, “I was once at a party where I saw a woman from the flower-child generation, who was dressed quite oddly and who kept asking everyone about their birthday and their ascendant, and then coming up with her astrological conclusions. I could see that people found it irritating, and they were trying to avoid her company, or to ignore her. There was something touching yet at the same time annoying about her. It occurred to me that nobody wants to listen to old women, and that with age women become invisible, which has its good as well as its bad sides. So in the book I decided to tell my story in the voice of one of these women—well-educated, slightly weird, sensitive, and single.”
Lloyd-Jones says that in translating Drive Your Plow, Janina’s voice was key for her, as well. “The reader has to stick with her for 250 pages, in a sense becoming complicit with her,” Lloyd-Jones says. “I worked with an audiobook as well as a printed copy to help me to listen to Duszejko’s strange way of using language. When I’d finished, I went back over the entire translation, fine-tuning and in fact reining her in a bit, making sure the balance between irritating and likeable was still there, but in a form that worked in English.”
Tokarczuk says that she wrote Drive Your Plow in a fugue state, in part because she knew exactly where the story would go. It wasn’t difficult to write, at least compared to a book like Flights, which she didn’t fully know the direction of at the outset (she adds that writing the screenplay for Drive Your Plow, which was adapted into a film in 2017, was much more difficult). “I find writing in the first person to be the easiest literary form. Beginners or inexperienced writers often use this form because they can’t yet handle a more demanding third-person narrative, which requires much greater control over the world you’re describing. A first-person narrative requires you to identify with the narrator for a certain time and to a certain degree, and then it just takes off on its own.” She continues: “I wrote this book without effort, pretty much chronologically. Duszejko’s story carried me along, and more or less wrote itself. While I was writing the last few chapters I did some crying—I don’t know whether it was the tension I’d had to keep up for several months, or sadness over my heroine’s fate.”
As an internationally renowned writer, Tokarczuk isn’t afraid to be outspoken about the situation in her country, using her visibility to bring attention to difficult, urgent issues. She’s challenged both Poland’s own historical narrative of itself as an “open, tolerant country” (which she received death threats for, even needing bodyguards for a time) and its tense current political environment, with the ruling conservative, nationalist Law and Justice party promoting racist and homophobic views, such as when the party’s leader Jarosław Kaczyński spoke about Muslim refugees carrying “parasites and protozoa.” Party officials have recently pushed to declare entire provinces “LGBT-ideology free”; a Law and Justice campaign ad depicted an umbrella with the party logo blocking a family from rainbow-colored rain.
In January, Tokarczuk wrote an opinion piece in the New York Times about Paweł Adamowicz, the mayor of Gdańsk, who was stabbed to death on stage during a live broadcast of a charity event that millions of viewers were watching, stating that the violence was a clear consequence of the rampant hate speech that has proliferated throughout the country. Tokarczuk says, “In today’s Poland it’s impossible for a writer to just write quietly in isolation from what’s going on around them, and as a result, willingly or not, literature is becoming more and more committed.”
What’s happening in Poland is inextricably tied to the Tokarczuk’s wide-lens narrative scopes. “In extreme shorthand, in modern times our world has come apart, and we’ve started seeing everything separately: the body, the soul, nature, science, people, and animals,” she says. “This has allowed us to make lots of discoveries, and in many cases it has brought about an improvement in people’s lives. But now this fragmentary, smashed-up world is starting to be a threat to itself. I wonder if we can make it whole again, and how that could be done. I think understanding the wholeness of the world as a system of communicating vessels, or a network, will give us an entirely new kind of responsibility. Literature, philosophy, and art are sure to play a major part in that.”
Tokarczuk, who has stated that her “romantic notion of helping people” led her to studying psychology at the University of Warsaw over 30 years ago, continues, and will continue, to look outward. She says that novels “exercise and develop our empathy,” and that she’s continually fascinated by literature’s ability to make the local become global. “When we read superbly written books by Annie Proulx or Richard Flanagan we’re able to transfer ourselves to Canada or Tasmania. If I have managed to cause Janina Duszejko, living somewhere in Central Europe, in Lower Silesia, in a tiny village, to occupy someone’s thoughts far away, I think I’ve achieved my literary aim. In a future book I’m going to go back to that idea.”
Gabe Habash is the author of the novel Stephen Florida.