Olga Tokarczuk ‘Drive Your Plow Over The Bones of The Dead’


With age, many men come down with testosterone autism, the symptoms of which are a gradual decline in social intelligence and capacity for interpersonal communication, as well as a reduced ability to formulate thoughts.


Olga Tokarczuk’s multi-prize winning book begins on the remote, high, snow covered Polish plains, close to the Czech border, with the death of Big Foot at his filthy home, and his neighbours, Oddball and Duszejko, finding his body. Duszejko then discovers both the overt and the covert original sins that are at the driving forces behind the book. No spoilers here, we’ll only consider the overt original sin. As they arrive, a group of wild deer seem to be watching them intently with deer tracks around the house, Duszejko then discovers to her horror and disgust that Big Foot had set up a feeding area at the back of his house and that he had shot a deer from his grange as they came to feed.

How much does it take to push a convinced believer into radical action? To the poetry of Blake, as the book advances the retired and recluse engineer Duszejko, who’s views of Hunters are clearly laid out in the opening quote, slowly sees a group of friends coalesce around her, whilst in parallel the number of suspicious deaths of hunters builds up.

At each crime scene no obvious murder weapon is to be found but there are deer tracks found around the bodies, after each death Duszejko, an old woman, who believes everything in life can be explained by astrology and who is not taken seriously, goes into town, to the police station to explain about the deer tracks and to push the police into considering that the animals are taking revenge.

As the hunters die, we discover that illegal actions within their number lead to payoffs to the police whilst the rest of the community scrape to get by.

Amongst many of the quotes from Blake, being translated into Polish by Dizzy, one of Duszejko friends, one sums up this state of affairs:


God made Man happy & Rich but cunning made the innocent Poor.


This is a book that would push you towards the animal cause, confronting two ideologies, the responsibility of man towards animals to help them live a full and happy life and that of the hunters epitomised by the following quote from the local priest blessing the hunters:


My dear brothers and sisters, hunters are the ambassadors and partners of the Lord God in the work of creation, in caring for game animals. Nature among which man lives needs help in order to flourish. Through their culls the hunters conduct the correct policy.


A great deal of work is carried out by the hunting lobby to show that hunters are necessary to regulate the wilds and that Q.E.D. They are the animals’ best friends.

Back to the whodunit, just a small detail, a lovely touch, Duszejko’s car, a Samouraï.

First Published in Polish as “Prowadż swój pług przez kości umarlych” in 2010 by Wydawnictwo Literackie.
Translated into English by Antonia Lloyd-Jones and published in 2018 as Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Fitzcarraldo Editions.
Translated into French by Margot Carlier and published in 2012 as “Sur les ossements des morts” by Les Éditions Noir sur Blanc

The quote as read in French

L’âge venant, beaucoup d’hommes soufrent d’une sorte de déficit, que j’appelle “autisme testostéronien”. Il se manifeste par une atrophie progressive de l’intelligence dite sociale et de la capacité à communiquer, et cela handicape également l’expression de la pensée.

Dieu créa l’homme heureux et riche. La ruse rendit pauvres les innocents

Les chasseurs, chers frères et sœurs, sont les ambassadeurs et les compagnons de Dieu dans l’œuvre de la Création et de la protection de la faune. Ses meilleurs collaborateurs. Il faut aider la nature qui nous accueille en son sein à se développer. Grâce à l’abattage systématique du gibier, les chasseurs mènent une action juste.

The Booker international special confinement review

And the Winner is:

Blocked at home thanks to the COVID, I thought: make this an opportunity .

So I’ve read the six shortlisted novels, written articles and debated extensively with myself and here are the conclusions.


The two South American books, very different in style, the poetic self discovery of China Iron contrasts with the crude realism of Hurricane Season but they share themes, poverty, cruelty, escapism through alcohol and drugs and the contrast of machism with homosexuality.


Tyll shares with China Iron taking their sources, the characters of Tyll and China from historical sources and using their stories to tell of the histories of Europe and Argentina.


The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree, through a story told, steeped in magic and ghosts , the influence of the Zoastrians, tells us the recent history of Iran and the terrible impact of the revolution and its oppressive regime on the people.


The memory police, is a stripped back yet allegorical story of a future and its past, about an oppressive regime and the faint hope that remains in the people.


And finally, The Discomfort of evening, a painful and disturbing book about the investigation and non acceptance of death in a young adolescent living in a hard line Reform community.


For the strength and depth of the story, re-visiting La Vuelta de Martin Fierro and the birth of Argentina from a new angle, the cruelty of the Hispanics, the instrumentalisation of the Gouchos and the poetic style, The adventures of China Iron is for me a clear winner.

Fernanda Melchor ‘Hurricane Season’

Booker International Prize 2020: 6 Books shortlisted for this prize.
“Hurricane Season”: In order of reading book number 6.

In order to follow this event, I have managed to write articles on all six of the short listed books and will propose my winner before the official announcement.
Visit the official site for more details: Booker International Prize 2020


Lagarta, you little shit-stirrer, you’re sick in the head, only you could come out with such a rotten, disgraceful pack of lies, aren’t you ashamed of yourself, whoring around and then pointing the finger at your cousin? There’s only one thing’ll stop you wanting to leave the house, you wicked little tramp. Grandma had cut off all her hair with the poultry shears while Yesenia sat motionless, as still as a possum in the headlights, terrified of being slashed by those icy blades, and afterwards she’d spent the whole night out in the yard, like the mongrel bitch that she was, and Grandma had said: a stinking animal that didn’t deserve so much as a flee-ridden mattress beneath its fetid coat.


As the story begins, the body of the witch is found in an irrigation canal on the outskirts of Matosa. To help us make sense of this discovery, chapter by chapter we follow what has happened through the eyes of one or the other of the protagonists. In sentences, rivalling Proust for length, through these different accounts we get a feeling for the town, Matosa:


They say that’s why the women are on edge, especially in La Matosa. They say that, come evening, they gather on their porches to smoke filterless cigarettes and cradle their youngest babes in their arms, blowing their peppery breath over those tender crowns to shoo away the mosquitos, basking in what little breeze reaches them from the river, when at last the town settles into silence and you can just about make out the music coming from the highway brothels in the distance, the rumble of the trucks as they make their way to the oilfields, the baying of dogs calling each other like wolves from one side of the plain to the other; the time of evening when the women sit around telling stories.


In this desperate town where the women seem to live from prostitution, and the men from the women we get a feeling of hopelessness, take for instance Lagarta from the opening quote, brought up harshly by her grand mother, as are so many of her cousins, nephews and nieces when their young parents runaway or are jailed. The hopelessness of their situations are drowned in Aguardiente, drugs or religion with dreams of having enough money to get a bus away from here.

The story is of machism and homosexuality, and the fine line between the two, of young girls discovering their power and becoming women too soon and preys of the men and of the age old solutions to unwanted pregnancies, with the witch central to both of these conflicts.

A second South American book in the selection, set 150 years after the first, The Adventures of China Iron , but treating many of the same subjects but this time through a realist vision, of the two, I preferred the first.

First Published in Spanish as “Temporada de huracanes” in 2017, in Mexico by Literatura Random House.
Translated into english by Sophie Hughes and published as “Hurricane Season” by Fitzcarraldo Editions in 2019
Translated into French by Laura Alcoba and published as “La saison des ouragans” by Grasset in 2019

Marieke Lucas Rijneveld ‘The Discomfort of Evening’

Booker International Prize 2020: 6 Books shortlisted for this prize.
“The Discomfort of Evening”: In order of reading book number 5.


It hasn’t occurred to me before that Mum and Dad couldn’t only be overcome by death but they could beat death to it.img_0081That you could plan the Day of Judgement just like a birthday party.


Jas, the narrator is, like Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, brought up in a Dutch Reform family in a Reform community, cut off from the rest of the world, “the other side”, the upbringing is strict in a religious sense and feelings are not shown or talked about, the family is poor and fights to just subsist. But Jas is brought up with her brothers Obbe and Matthies and her sister Hanna on a dairy farm with more than one hundred head of cattle and with country folk’s natural understanding of reproduction. At the outset of the book the initial tragedy takes place as Matthies takes part in a local skating competition where the winner “got a plate of stewed udders with mustard and a gold medal with the year 2000 on it.” He falls through the ice and drowns.

This story then studies the effect of this event on Jas’ family as the natural characteristics of each of the family members is magnified by the event. It begs the question of religion; does this age old unchanged religion help to cope with such a tragedy? Firstly, the mother who in her sorrow has no time for her children or for herself and clearly is torn with the thought of suicide. In her morbid state she provides no stability for the family as illustrated by the following quote from Jas who used to enjoy watching the stars:


I’ve learned that the heavens aren’t a wishing-well but a mass grave. Every star is a dead child, and the most beautiful star is Matthies – Mum taught us that.


The eldest son Obbe becomes obsessed with death and repeatedly tries to re-enact his brothers death, firstly with animals, drowning a hamster and looking on with Jas and becoming more and more dangerous. Jas herself, concious of the danger posed by her brother, nonetheless goes on to push her younger sister off of the bridge leading to “the other side” into the river just to see what would happen.

The lack of understanding between the generations, of what it is to be an adolescent, can best be illustrated by Jas’ father’s udder cloths:


He secures the cows between the bars, attaches the cups to their udders, then uses one of my old underpants covered in salve to clean them afterwards. I often used to feel embarrassed when Dad rubbed one of my worn-out pairs of knickers on the udders, or cleaned the milking cups with them without any kind of bashfulness – but sometimes at night I’ve thought about the crotch that has passed through so many other people’s hands, from Obbe’s to Farmer Janssen’s, and that they touch me that way, with calluses and blisters on their palms. Sometimes a pair of knickers gets lost among the cows before finally getting kicked between the gratings. Dad calls them udder cloths; he doesn’t see them as underpants any more. On Saturdays Mum washes the udder cloths and hangs them to dry on the washing line.


When things can’t get worse, they do. Foot and moith disease reaches the community and the family, disoriented by death, must now witness the killing of their cattle:


Death hasn’t only entered Mum and Dad but is also inside us – it will always look for a body or an animal and it won’t rest until it’s got hold of something.


The book then heads towards an ending that no longer surprises us.
This book was at times difficult to read, especially when addressing the deeds and missdeeds of the children and their sexual awakening in this, their troubled time. Violence, lack of conscience, morbidity and sexual experiments make for uneasy reading. We need to talk about Obbe!

First Published in Dutch in 2018 by Atlas Contact.
Translated into english by Michele Hutchinson and published as “The Discomfort of Evening” by Faber & Faber in 2020
Translated into french by Daniel Cunin and published as “qui sème le vent” by Buchet Chastel in 2020

Gabriela Cabezón Cámara « The Adventures of China Iron »

Booker International Prize 2020: 6 Books shortlisted for this prize.
“The Adventures of China Iron”: In order of reading book number 3.

In order to follow this event, hopefully I’ll manage to write articles on all six of the short listed books and propose my winner before the official announcement.
Visit the official site for more details: Booker International Prize 2020


Many said there was no need to spare the blood of gauchos, but he did spare it: he considered the gauchos every bit a part of the estancia as any one of the cows and he wouldn’t let a single one die without good reason.


Gabriela Cabezón Cámara’s China Iron (thanks to the translators notes) is a story very loosely based on the 19th century balad, “La Vuelta de Martín Fierro” about life as a Gaucho on the Argentinian Pampas, except that Cámara bases this story around Fierro’s wife, unnamed in the balad.

A female gaucho, a “gaucha” is know as a china, and as the story begins Fierro, as in the balad, wins china from El Negro in a card game and fathers her two children before her fourteenth birthday, Fierro kills El Negro “because he can” before the army catches up with him:


When they conscripted Fierro along with all the others, they also took Oscar, who was what Fierro laughingly called (in his famous song) a ‘Jimmy-gringo’ from Britain.


His wife just ups and leaves on a wagon with Liz, Oscar’s wife, on a 19th century Pampas road movie, a voyage of discovery of herself and the country she lives in. When Liz asks her her name, she realises that she doesn’t have one, people have only ever called her china like all the other women, and so she begins by naming herself, keeping the China and using the English translation of her husbands name, Iron.

They leave the Pampas and cross the dessert following an old Indian, well trodden, earth path as she and Liz get to know each other, China falling in love with Liz during torrid nights in the wagon, and as China gains an outsider’s view of Gauchos:


Liz – who believed in work more than in God the Father – was right about gauchos being parasites on cows and horses. She was right about my people’s life of meat and water; we didn’t grow squashes or beans, we didn’t weave or fish, we barely hunted, didn’t use any wood other than fallen branches, and then only to make fire.


In the second part of the trip, China discovers the creation of the “New Argentina” as they stop over at José Hernández’s Hacienda, the José Hernández that wrote the balad. She sees the cruelty of the land owners to the Gouchos, using the army to control them, with his view of them illustrated in the opening quote. A normal punishment was to be staked out in the sun using four stakes for several days. But if the Gauchos were second class citizens they were better treated than the Indians:


I’ve already told you, Liz: Argentina needs that land in order to progress. And as for the gauchos, they need an enemy to turn them into patriotic Argentines. We all need the Indians.


China and Liz escape to Indian country where they meet up with the “real” balad writer Martín Fierro who as in the original balad had run of with a deserter, Cruz, but not for quite the same reasons as imagined by Cámara in this version of the poem, translated marvellously in A B C C C B by Iona Macintyre and Fiona Mackintosh:


Like Jesus rising from the tomb
In two days I was well:
The third day dawned, he kissed my lips
His salt-sweet mouth mine did eclipse
He mounted me, he held my hips
To heaven I came from hell.

The sun shone on my arse that hour.
My spurs I cast away,
A moment more I couldn’t wait
To suck him dry and with him sate
My lust for him, then lie prostrate;
Such freedom I knew that day.

To you in words I can’t explain
The pleasure that I felt
To have his prick come into me
In paradise I seemed to be
Through flesh was God revealed to me
And at his feet I knelt.


This was a fun story of awakening in a cruel world (slavery, the indusrial revolution and the creating of Argentina), well worth its place on the Booker International shortlist.

First Published in Spanish as “Las aventuras de la China Iron” in 2017, in Argentina by Penguin Random House Group.
Translated into english by Iona Macintyre and Fiona Mackintosh and published as “The Advetures of China Iron” by Charco Press in 2019

Yoko Ogawa ‘The Memory Police’

Booker International Prize 2020: 6 Books shortlisted for this prize.
1. “The Memory Police”: In order of reading book number 2.

I don’t normally follow this prize in detail but I end up reading some of the shortlisted books, since, due to the confinement, the award has been delayed and I’m into my third book of the six, I thought here goes.
In order to follow this event, hopefully I’ll manage to write articles on all six of the short listed books and propose my winner before the official announcement.
Visit the official site for more details: Booker International Prize 2020


My favorite story was the one about “perfume,” a clear liquid in a small glass bottle. The first time my mother placed it in my hand, I thought it was some sort of sugar water, and I started to bring it to my mouth. “No, it’s not to drink,” my mother cried, laughing. “You put just a drop on your neck, like this.” Then she carefully dabbed the bottle behind her ear. “But why would you do that?” I asked, thoroughly puzzled. “Perfume is invisible to the eye, but this little bottle nevertheless contains something quite powerful,” she said. I held it up and studied it. “When you put it on, it has a wonderful smell. It’s a way of charming someone. When I was young, we would use it before we went out with a boy. Choosing the right scent was as important as choosing the right dress—you wanted the boy to like both. This is the perfume I wore when your father and I were courting. We used to meet at a rose garden on the hill south of town, and I had a terrible time finding a fragrance that wouldn’t be overpowered by the flowers. When the wind rustled my hair, I would give him a look as if to ask whether he’d noticed my perfume.” My mother was at her most lively when she talked about this small bottle. “In those days, everyone could smell perfume. Everyone knew how wonderful it was. But no more. It’s not sold anywhere, and no one wants it.


The female novelist and narrator in this, Yoko Ogawa’s 1994 novel, lives on an unamed island under the control of an unknown totalitarian power, unknown to us and also to the narrator it would seem. The island is policed by the strict and all powerfull Memory Police. The story begins, with small things, small events, and we do not know where the narrator is taking us as she tells us of her mother who had been taken away and the stories she used to tell her, epitomised by the long opening quote telling us that no one now knows what perfume is. But if her mother told her, then she had not forgotten.

As the story progresses, things are occasionally dissapeared, initially roses, and we understand that from one day to the next everyone on the island, which is cut off from the world, forgets the existence of roses. Slowly as the novel advances the scale of the things that are dissapeared is ratcheted up.

The narrator is a writer and we understand quickly that not everybody forgets the objects that are dissapeared. Her publisher, who had known her mother, comes to her and we learn that this sensitive man, R, can no longer hide his memories and is in fear for his life. The narrator with the help of an old family friend, the old man, decide to hide him from the memory police. The old man had been the ferry man before the ferry had dissapeared and no one remembered where it went. R shows them some of the things that had been dissapeared but for which examples had been hidden, he then explains the importance of these objects and their eventual memories to the narrator and the old man:


I’m not the one who needs these things, you two are. The old man let out a low sigh as though lost in thought. “I truely believe they have the power to change you to alter your hearts and minds, the slightest sensation can have an effect, can help you to remember, these things will restore your memories.” The old man and I glanced at each other and then looked down. We had known that R would tell us something like this but now that we were confronted with his actual words no appropriate response came to mind. “If we do remember something” said the old man struggling to find words “What do we do then?”
“I suppose memories live here and there in the body.” the old man said moving his hand from his chest to the top of his head “But they’re invisible aren’t they? And no matter how wonderful the memory it vanishes if you leave it alone, if no one pays attention to it. They leave no trace, no evidence that they ever existed.”


What is memory and where can the manipulation of memory lead? As the narrator tries to come to terms with memory through the experience of R, she slowly loses her ability to write. R insists that she keep working on it and she slowly tells a parallel story of a man who captures the voices of writers by taking their typewriters, which contain their voices away from them and the eventual awareness of the situation by the female narrator of this story within a story:

At that moment I noticed something that should have been perfectly obvious, there was no paper anywhere in the room, not a single sheet of typing paper, not even a scrap fit for a note. There was no point in looking for a working typewriter if there was nothing to type on. Once I realized there was no means to get them out, words seem to proliferate wildly inside me, filling my chest and suffocating me.
“Fix one quickly!”
Unconsciously my fingers began to move as though tapping out these words, but with nothing to strike they just fluttered in the air. I went to the pile, retrieved my broken typewriter and placed it in front of him again, unable to stand the trapped feeling a moment longer. “Why won’t you fix it? what’s wrong with it? I can’t stand it if I can’t talk to you.” I held tight to his shoulder trying with all my might to convey this feeling to him through the expression on my face. His hand stopped moving and he let out a long sigh, then he wrapped the stopwatch in the velvet cloth and set it on the table. “Your voice will never come back.”

This is a haunting novel about the birth of hope and rebellion in a totally hopeless situation, it will come back to you from time to time, a truely impressive work.

First Published in Japanese in 1994. Translated into English by Stephen Snyder and published in 2019 as The Memory Police by Pantheon.