Olga Tokarczuk’s Blake

Reviewed by Ralph Dumain


Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead: a novel by Olga Tokarczuk, translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones. New York: Riverhead Books, 2019. (From Polish: Prowadź swój pług przez kości umarłych, 2009.)

I was taken by the fact that the author made William Blake a central theme (beginning with the title) of her novel. The characters are finely drawn, the style of the English translation is compelling, but I can’t say that reading the novel was a profitable use of my time. I don’t know how well Tokarczuk understands Blake, but her main character, who narrates the novel, shows little understanding.

Janina Duszejko is an elderly crackpot, a loner devoted to astrology, animal rights, and William Blake. Blake has no affinity to astrology, and the only possible link to animal rights is Blake’s poem Auguries of Innocence. That poem contains numerous verses mentioning acts of cruelty to animals, as a way of criticizing humans’ cruelty to one another, but Blake was no vegan. As the Author’s Note (p. 275) notes, the quotes in the text and those that preface each chapter come from Proverbs of Hell, Auguries of Innocence, The Mental Traveller, and Blake’s letters.

The novel takes the form of a sort of murder mystery. Contrary to the police, Duszejko is convinced that the murders of various humans were committed by animals in retribution against what was done to them. There is a surprise ending which I won’t reveal. There also seems to be some social criticism in this as well.

I found none of this interesting until late in the novel when Duszejko takes on Catholicism. The final sentence of chapter X reads: “For some time I shared my bed with a Catholic, and nothing good came of it.” There is an episode in which Father Rustle, who is also a hunter, preaches the moral virtues of hunting to a congregation of hunters. Duszejko denounces the preaching and the proceedings. According to the Author’s Note, Father Rustle’s sermon is a compilation of actual sermons by hunt chaplains.  Rustle becomes one of the murder victims.

Whether there is a larger moral to be drawn from this denunciation of Catholicism as institutionalized in Poland, I do not know. I wish there were more to the novel than this. Coincidentally, I got this book out of the library shortly before Tokarczuk was announced winner of the Nobel Prize.

Page notes:

55-7: 1st engagement with Blake. Anger must lead to action. Astrology… Dizzy not interested.
59: Dizzy translates Blake.
70-1: Difficulty translating verses from Auguries of Innocence.
82: The human brain is badly constructed.
84: Blake in Czech Republic. Blake: Somewhere in the universe the Fall has not occurred.
89: “Cold irony is Urizen’s basic weapon.”
91-3: Translating The Mental Traveller.
114: Children → adults → Ulro
132: Blake letter on his constitution.
153: Bialystok.
157: “For some time I shared my bed with a Catholic, and nothing good came of it.” Final sentence of chapter X.209: Everything possible to be believed is an image of the truth.

Author’s Note [275]:

Quotes come from Proverbs of Hell, Auguries of Innocence, The Mental Traveller, and Blake’s letters.
Father Rustle’s sermon is a compilation of actual sermons by hunt chaplains.


William Blake Study Guide


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Uploaded 26 October 2019

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