Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk, a slim and very entertaining novel translated from Polish. I read it in January for a readalong with the Book Cougars podcast, one of my favorites. This unusual book with the strange title (it's a line from a William Blake poem) was short-listed for the International Booker Prize, long-listed for the National Book Award for Translated Fiction, and won the 2018 Nobel Prize in Literature. It's a quirky, funny, thoughtful novel that deserved all those accolades, and I am glad to have read it. It often made me laugh out loud, I loved the clever way the author said things (and kudos to the English translator, Antonia Lloyd-Jones), and I filled my Quote Journal with examples.
You can read my full review at the link. Briefly, it's about Janina, an older woman in Poland who lives up in the mountains near the Czech border. She has some sort of unnamed chronic illness that sometimes flares up unexpectedly, and she is used to spending a lot of time alone, as her "neighborhood" is mostly summer homes that she cares for during the long, brutal winter. There is a twisty mystery in the book, about a string of murders in her area, but what delighted me most about the book were Janina's astute and often hilarious observations about life. Here are a few examples:
"Once we reach a certain age, it's hard to be reconciled to the fact that people are always going to be impatient with us."As someone who is both chronically ill and aging, I could see the wisdom in this statement! My own illness is quite invisible to others, but I know that Janina's observation holds true for friends of mine whose disabilities are more obvious (though it might be more accurate to say "ignored" than "impatient" in that case). And I have certainly witnessed the impatience of younger people toward older people. I guess I have that to look forward to!
About her mysterious ailments and the role of doctors and medical testing:
"We have this body of ours, a troublesome piece of luggage, we don't really know anything about it and we need all sorts of Tools to find out about its most natural processes ... The only coarse and primitive Tool gifted us for consolation is pain. The angels, if they really do exist, must be splitting their sides laughing at us. Fancy being given a body and not knowing anything about it. There's no instruction manual."I'm sure we can all relate that that passage! How many times have we each wished for an instruction manual or some sort of magic to tell us what is happening in our bodies? We learn (hopefully) to listen to the hints, like pain, that something is wrong and we need to care for ourselves, but we rarely understand why these symptoms occur. I have spent the past 17 years (since I was first diagnosed, a year into my illness) studying and reading the research about ME/CFS (and later, Lyme), and I still have only a basic understanding of the inner workings of my body and how illness affects it. I also love that she calls her body "a troublesome piece of luggage"!
General wisdom for us all:
"Everything will pass.When I was finally diagnosed about a year into my illness, I sent an e-mail to friends and family explaining what my disease was and how it affected me. I received many kind and supportive messages back, but the one that brought me to tears and made me feel better was a simple "This too shall pass," from a close friend and old office-mate. He told me he'd had ME/CFS back in grad school (referred to as the "yuppie flu" back then) and was horribly debilitated for over a year and then recovered. Now, of course, he was one of the lucky ones, and I have not recovered (18 years now), but his words were still comforting and are still true. While the disease is still with me, the intense pain and grief of those early years did pass, and I have been able to find treatments that have improved my condition. I am still chronically ill and limited, but those early days of acute grief and mystery and helplessness have passed. I think this is so important to remember when tragedy, pain, grief, and other challenges hit you.
A wise Man knows this from the start, and has no regrets."
How we each contribute to creating our own world:
"...sometimes it seems to me we're living in a world that we fabricate for ourselves. We decide what's good and what isn't, we draw maps of meanings for ourselves ... And then we spend our whole lives struggling with what we have invented for ourselves. The problem is that each of us has our own version of it, so people find it hard to understand each other."This is so true, that we each make our own reality. And it provides some insight into why other people probably can't truly understand our world of chronic illness. This certainly gives me something to think about with respect to the challenges I have with my family understanding my life. I think this is a good way to remind ourselves to be kinder, more tolerant, and less judgemental when faced with other people's realities, too.
This quote I include simply for fun because it made me laugh out loud, as did many sentences and passages in this quirky novel! I also read it aloud to my husband, and he laughed, too, so I hope my older male readers won't take offense.
"It's hard work talking to some people, most often males. I have a Theory about it. 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. The Person beset by this Ailment becomes taciturn and appears to be lost in contemplation. He develops an interest in various Tools and machinery, and he's drawn to the Second World War and the biographies of famous people, mainly politicians and villains."Well, my husband still reads mostly thrillers, but otherwise, this sounds pretty accurate! He could laugh because he knows I complain about him not talking to me. Although, the pandemic has changed things a bit. Now that he is working from home and not in an office with co-workers, and we are together every day, all day, he can get a bit chatty in between work calls, usually just about the time I am sitting down to do some work or writing! Again, we can laugh about this.
So, I can't resist one final quote from the book that is particularly relevant to pandemic/quarantine life:
"Boris' presence reminded me what it's like to live with someone. And how very awkward it is. How much it diverts you from your own thoughts and distracts you. How another Person starts to irritate you without actually doing anything annoying, but simply by being there. Each morning, when he went off to the forest, I blessed my glorious solitude."I'll just leave you with that thought!