A special degree of familiarity

Excerpt from Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk

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This is an excerpt from the book Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk, translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones.

‘What are you going to call her?’ I asked, as the first sips of tea warmed me from the inside, and the tangle of emotions caught in my throat began to melt a little.

Oddball shrugged.

‘I don’t know, maybe Fly, or Tray.’

I didn’t say anything, but I didn’t like it. Those names didn’t suit this Dog, considering her personal history. Something else would have to be thought up for her instead.

What a lack of imagination it is to have official first names and surnames. No one ever remembers them, they’re so divorced from the Person, and so banal that they don’t remind us of them at all. What’s more, each generation has its own trends, and suddenly everyone’s called Magdalena, Patryk, or – God forbid – Janina. That’s why I try my best never to use first names and surnames, but prefer epithets that come to mind of their own accord the first time I see a Person. I’m sure this is the right way to use language, rather than tossing about words stripped of all meaning. Oddball’s surname, for instance, is Świerszczyński – that’s what it says on his front door, with the letter ‘Ś’ in front of it. Is there really a first name that starts with the letter Ś? He has always introduced himself as ‘Świerszczyński’, but he can’t expect us to twist our tongues trying to pronounce it. 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. My name for Świerszczyński is Oddball, and I think it reflects his Attributes well.

But now, as I gazed at the Dog, the first thing that occurred to me was a human name, Marysia. Maybe because of the orphan in the classic children’s story – she was so emaciated.

‘She wouldn’t be called Marysia, would she?’ I asked.

‘Possibly,’ he replied. ‘Yes, I think that’s right. Her name’s Marysia.’

The naming of Big Foot occurred in a similar way. It was quite straightforward – it suggested itself to me when I saw his footprints in the snow. To begin with, Oddball had called him ‘Shaggy’, but then he borrowed ‘Big Foot’ from me. All it means is that I chose the right name for him.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t choose a suitable name for myself. I regard the one that’s written on my identity card as scandalously wrong and unfair – Janina. I think my real name is Emilia, or Joanna. Sometimes I think it’s something like Irmtrud too. Or Bellona. Or Medea.

Meanwhile Oddball avoids calling me by my name like the plague. That means something too. Somehow he always finds a way to address me as ‘you’.

‘Will you wait with me until they get here?’ he asked.

‘Sure,’ I readily agreed, and realized I’d never have the courage to call him ‘Oddball’ to his face. When you’re such close neighbours, you don’t need names to address each other. Whenever I see him weeding his small garden as I’m passing by, I don’t need his name to speak to him. It’s a special degree of familiarity.

The name of the book comes from William Blake’s prose work called The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, in a section called the Proverbs of Hell, you can read it here.

Have you read this book? I’d love to hear your thoughts in a comment below!

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead – Summary

Here is the book summary from Goodreads:

One of Poland’s most imaginative and lyrical writers, Olga Tokarczuk presents us with a detective story with a twist in DRIVE YOUR PLOW OVER THE BONES OF THE DEAD. After her two dogs go missing and members of the local hunting club are found murdered, teacher and animal rights activist Janina Duszejko becomes involved in the ensuing investigation. Part magic realism, part detective story, DRIVE YOUR PLOW OVER THE BONES OF THE DEAD is suspenseful and entertaining reimagining of the genre interwoven with poignant and insightful commentaries on our perceptions of madness, marginalised people and animal rights.

Copyright © 2009 by Olga Tokarczuk.

Translated by: Antonia Lloyd-Jones

You can find more details here on Goodreads and on StoryGraph.

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