review of Olga Tokarczuk's novel Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead

"You'll say it's just one Boar," I continued. "But what about the deluge of butchered meat that falls on our cities day by day like neverending, apocalyptic rain? This rain heralds slaughter, disease, collective madness, the obfuscation and contamination of the Mind. For no human heart is capable of bearing so much pain. The whole, complex human psyche has evolved to prevent Man from understanding what he is really seeing. To stop the truth from reaching him by wrapping it in illusion, in idle chatter. The world is a prison full of suffering, so constructed that in order to survive one must inflict pain on others. Do you hear me?"

I was eating a pizza topped with three different varieties of pork as I read that, so I have no right to cheer for the narrator as she rants about humanity's mistreatment of animals. But I do anyway. She's surrounded by people who dismiss her concerns without really engaging with them. They've been taught what their moral responsibilities are by their culture and religion, and a deep empathy for animals just isn't on the list. They - like most of us, in my experience - have difficulty even seriously considering the possibility that some aspect of their lifestyle they've always taken for granted could actually be immoral. So, like any would-be moral reformer, the narrator's world is pervaded by tragedies that the people around her cannot even recognize as tragedies.

I particularly liked the scene where she mocks the priest's sermon at the dedication of a chapel to the patron saint of hunters ("a compilation of genuine sermons by hunt chaplains sourced from the Internet", according to the author's note). Not because I think hunting is necessarily wrong, but because the hypocritical motivated reasoning feels so familiar. The priest effusively portrays hunting as an altruistic, beautiful, even sacred activity, but are these his actual reasons for hunting? It seems clear he's just trying to bolster his own personal favorite hobby. There's something especially disheartening when this hypocrisy occurs under the auspices of Christianity: even when people have committed themselves to a belief system whose very core is a story of radical self-sacrificing love, they'll still go to great lengths to rationalize why they don't actually need to sacrifice whatever it is that's important to them.1

Admittedly, the narrator is a terrible ambassador for her own beliefs. She doesn't hesitate to make enemies but puts little effort into building alliances; she repeatedly tries tactics that have already failed in the past; she acts impulsively when angry:

Anger puts things in order and shows you the world in a nutshell; Anger restores the gift of Clarity of Vision, which it's hard to attain in any other state.

I would reply that anger gives us the feeling of clarity without actually improving our vision, and that's very dangerous. But here's a comment that resonates with me:

Anger always leaves a large void behind it, into which a flood of sorrow pours instantly...

The narrator also has an obsession with astrology. What this lacks in rationality it perhaps makes up for in poetry:

Sparks come from the very source of light and are made of the purest brightness—so say the oldest legends. When a human Being is to be born, a spark begins to fall. First it flies through the darkness of outer space, then through galaxies, and finally, before it falls here, to Earth, the poor thing bumps into the orbits of planets. Each of them contaminates the spark with some Properties, while it darkens and fades.

Another of her quirks is to refer to everyone in her life by a name she's assigned them, such as Big Foot or Oddball:

I believe each of us sees the other Person in our own way, so we should give them the name we consider suitable and fitting. Thus we are polyonymous. We have as many names as the number of people with whom we interact.

What names would my friends give me, I wonder?

Unrelated to anything else, this book makes me think you could build a party game around translating poetry. For those of us who enjoy very low-key parties.

First, we each wrote out our own translation, in the trochaic meter more natural to Polish verse, then we compared them, and started to wind our ideas together. It was a bit like a game of logic, a complicated form of Scrabble.
  1. I can't resist sharing a favorite quote from Soren Kierkegaard. I don't remember where I encountered this but I believe it originally comes from Judge for Yourselves. I encourage you to mentally substitute "justice" or "doing the right thing" in place of "Christianity" - human hypocrisy is not restricted to a particular ideology.

    From generation to generation, while they continued the calm acquisition and possession of the things of this world, people kept on using this assurance: “If it were required of me, I would be willing to forsake everything, sacrifice everything, for the sake of Christianity.” And the single individual, while he continued the calm acquisition and possession of the things of this world, has kept on for twenty, thirty, forty years, in short, a whole lifetime, using this assurance: “If if were required of me, I would be willing to forsake everything, sacrifice everything, for the sake of Christianity.” Meanwhile, the world has seen an almost complete moral disintegration—but not one of the assurers found that it was now required of him; he merely went on giving the assurance “that if . . . . …” That is, he continued to acquire, to seek, and to possess the things of this world. But he was also a hero; that it was not manifest was not his fault: If it were required . . . . . he would be perfectly willing; he gave the assurance “that if . . . . ..”