Blake, Misunderstood? Review of Olga Tokarczuk’s ‘Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead’

Josephine A. McQuail reviews Olga Tokarczuk’s award-winning Blakean novel Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead (translated by Antonia Lloyd Jones. Riverhead Books, 2009; translation © 2018)

Images from Spoor, the 2017 Polish film directed by Agnieszka Holland, adapted from the novel Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk. Above: Agnieszka Mandat and Miroslave Krobot (Photo: Palk Robert/Next Film); Below: poster for the film (Photo: (WP:NFCC#4).

Olga Tokarczuk won the 2018 Nobel Prize for Literature in 2019 (the prize was delayed, due to various scandals involving some members of the Nobel Prize Committee). Her 2007 novel Flights was translated into English finally in 2018, winning the Man Booker Prize, and paving the way for the Nobel Prize.

Tokarczuk’s novel Flights won the Man Booker Prize in 2018

Tokarczuk speculated, “Sometimes I wonder how my life would have worked out if my books had been translated into English sooner … because English is the language that’s spoken worldwide, and when a book appears in English it is made universal, it becomes a global publication” (quoted in Armitstead). 

As anyone who has read Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell and remembers “The Proverbs of Hell” will recognize, the title of Tokarczuk’s 2009 novel is a quote from William Blake – or technically a paraphrase, as the actual quote is “Drive your cart and plow over the bones of the dead.”

Not to give anything away, but the quote has a lot of relevance to the plot of the novel, as it turns out. Tokarczuk’s protagonist Janina is an elderly woman who has a passion for horoscopes; a skill that comes into play when her neighbors turn up dead.  She lives full time in a country setting in rural Poland bordering on the Czech Republic (as Olga Tokarczuk herself does).  She lives on a plateau, with harsh weather, and pointedly, calls it “the world of Urizen” (p. 56) (Urizen in Blake, or “Your Reason” as it is sometimes pronounced, is a cold, repressive force).

Each of the seventeen chapters has an epigraph by William Blake – quotes (as vaguely indicated in the Author’s Note) taken from “the Proverbs of Hell, Auguries of Innocence, The Mental Traveller and the letters of William Blake” (p. 275). The misattribution of “The Proverbs of Hell” (and not Marriage of Heaven and Hell) is puzzling, and also the lack of mention of The Book of Urizen, which is specifically discussed and quoted in the novel (“What demon hath formed this adominable void?”, p. 71). Like the misquote of the Proverb of Hell in the title, are these subtle signals that we have not the “real” Blake alluded to here, but a “filtered” one?

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