Reinventing Literary Form: Olga Tokarczuk’s ‘Tender Narrator’ in Our Times

In 'Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead', the author opens up space for the mystery novel to become a vehicle for social commentary and a critique of prevalent socio-political and ecological ills.

Can the inarticulate denizens of the natural world—the deer, the magpies, the white foxes, even the beetles—become characters with agency, even in a non-fabulist story seemingly about crime? The ‘tender narrator’ of Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk’s novel Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead (2009, trans. 2018) achieves this difficult feat, as we shall see in this review essay. Indeed, the recent conferral of Emerging Europe’s Artistic Achievement for 2020 to Tokarczuk for her concept of the ‘tender narrator’, presented in her Nobel Prize acceptance speech is a fitting tribute to this important writer who has enlivened the discourse on literary form and the modes of narration possible in the novel.

Olga Tokarczuk
Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead
Riverhead, 2019

The conventional murder mystery, with its clue-puzzle structure, suspense and technique of withholding information until the final disclosure of the criminal’s identity (confirming the detective’s ratiocinative prowess), has been subjected to a variety of creative modifications since the advent of the genre with Edgar Allan Poe’s introduction of the sleuth C. Auguste Dupin in the story ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’ (1841). Agatha Christie’s technically innovative The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926) and Endless Night (1967) introduced the device of narrator as criminal. The conventions of the genre have been further transformed by masters such as Jorge Luis Borges (in his story ‘Death and the Compass’ (1944, trans. 1954)), with a redirection from epistemological questions (whodunit) to ontological questions (who am I/what is the nature of being?).

The decoding of the narration of the story of the crime (with its inevitable gaps and omissions) and the subsequent investigation of the ‘real’ sequence of events by the detective (see Tzvetan Todorov’s ‘The Typology of Detective Fiction’) has often hinged on the presence of an inept or unreliable narrator. For instance, think of the Watson figure in Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective fiction, reconfigured by Christie in the above cited atypical mystery novels.  The reader then joins in this activity of detection as reading against the grain of the narrator’s description, filling in the missing elements en route to a resolution of the mystery. Furthermore, such experimentation with form has opened space for the mystery novel to become a vehicle for social commentary and a critique of prevalent socio-political and ecological ills, as we find in the case of Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones.

Tokarczuk launches a wide-ranging critique of the institutional hypocrisies that permit the indiscriminate hunting of animals and generalised indifference to the violation of animal rights in this book, which also features a number of unsolved murders of human beings. The vehicle for this is Janina Dusejko, an elderly astrologist and narrator, resident of a remote part of the Polish countryside who plays a pivotal role in the discovery of the series of crimes. Her anger at the cruelty underpinning the practice of hunting is fuelled in part by a sensibility moulded by the poetry of William Blake and a first-hand perception of the damage being done to the environment by the human species, eventually leading up to the unusual denouement. Her narration, as a person deemed eccentric and even a mad old woman by the authorities and many in the community, shapes our sense of the unfolding of the grim sequence of events, with an undercurrent of black humour.

As Tokarczuk says in her 2018 acceptance speech:

“Tenderness is the art of personifying, of sharing feelings, and thus endlessly discovering similarities. Creating stories means constantly bringing things to life, giving an existence to all the tiny pieces of the world that are represented by human experiences, the situations people have endured and their memories. Tenderness personalises everything to which it relates, making it possible to give it a voice, to give it the space and the time to come into existence, and to be expressed. It is thanks to tenderness that the teapot starts to talk. Tenderness is the most modest form of love. It is the kind of love that does not appear in the scriptures or the gospels, no one swears by it, no one cites it. It has no special emblems or symbols, nor does it lead to crime, or prompt envy.”

Tokarczuk’s ‘tender narrator’ is nicely embodied in the novel earlier cited. However, Janina lacks complete self-knowledge and is not an omniscient narrator. The extension of sympathies into the realm of society and nature, without idealization, that George Eliot espoused, as a key function of art, is exemplified here (as in Eliot’s Middlemarch, 1872). On occasion, this hyper-empathy for the ‘other’ tilts into absurdity as Janina’s quest for justice unravels. The influence of Blake is pervasive as well, especially his outrage at man’s infringements on the autonomy of the natural world and criticism of the propensity to think in dualistic terms. Blake’s poetic vision suffuses the novel, from the title to the epigraphs to each chapter.

For instance, the title is taken from ‘The Proverbs of Hell’, from Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790-93). As Alok Bhalla points out, in this poem Blake makes a scathing indictment of institutionalized heaven and its representatives, the ‘Angels’ in the aristocracy, church and clergy, in the name of the poor and ordinary, the ‘Devils’ consigned to Hell as outsiders. The specific context of Polish history and the years of genocidal violence whose legacy is still being reckoned with may be a further reason for invoking Blake’s line “Drive your cart and plough through the bones of the dead”, since, in many ways, the task of moving beyond a history of extreme violence still remains incomplete. This is echoed in the novel in the depiction of pits with bones strewn in them, a reference to the fate of the Polish Jews, also a possible metaphor for narrow self-interest rather a sense of connectedness with the universe.

Janina helps a friend translate Blake’s poetry into Polish, encompassing the vision underpinning his work and literalizing it in her own crusade. In the process, a subtle critique of the era of the Anthropocene comes to the fore. For the notion of the tender narrator, in Tokarczuk’s rendering, does not preclude the possibility of nemesis visited upon those responsible for excesses damaging the very basis for human existence. There is a dystopic vision of the present in the book’s concluding chapters, with the fraying of ties and isolation of those who possess the ability to make deeper connections with the ecosphere.

Polish Novelist Olga Tokarczuk. Photo: Reuters

Despite this, the novel exemplifies a blurring of boundaries between kinds of literature, as poetry meets the whodunit, and the parable meets the existential novel. We do move beyond overused first-person narration, as critically debunked in Tokarczuk’s Nobel acceptance speech, to a mode of narration that gives a voice to outsiders, as well as to the otherwise voiceless dogs, deer, magpies, white foxes (and beetles) that appear intriguingly in the text.

Straightforward resolution may no longer be possible, in this new mode of narration of genocidal violence and trauma as well as the resistance to and countering of lingering effects. Instead the ‘fourth-person’ narrator that Tocarczuk postulates in her acceptance speech steps out of the horizon of all the characters, generating the likelihood of restoration of the multiplicity of stories and modes of storytelling.

This becomes a crucial avenue of resistance in the age of relentless climate change – also, we might add, the time of pandemics, rising authoritarianism and consequent fragmentation of human connectedness in the name of the public good. Regardless, the murder mystery will never be the same as a result of Tokarczuk’s deployment of the tender narrator in this distinctive novel.

Tarun K. Saint is an independent scholar and writer. He is the author of Witnessing Partition: Memory, History, Fiction, based on his doctoral dissertation.