On 16 October, Curzon Bloomsbury hosted a screening of a Spoor, a film adaptation of Olga Tokarczuk’s novel Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, which was translated into English this year, just after its author won the Man Booker International Prize for her constellation novel Flights (2007, translated in 2018). The Screening was followed by a Q&A with the author and the novel’s English translator Antonia Lloyd-Jones, addressing the book and the film’s different political overtones, William Blake’s struggles of profanation, and astrology.
Drive Your Plow was first published in 2009, and, as the author’s candidly stated, was written in order to financially support her while she was working on her largest piece to date, The Books of Jacob (translated into English by Jennifer Croft, 2018). During the 9-year-gap between Drive Your Plow’s Polish and English publication, its story about Janina Duszejko reached an international audience through the medium of film, thanks to one of Poland’s most eminent directors, Agnieszka Holland. Yet even though the novel and the film tell roughly the same tale (the film script was written by Tokarczuk herself), they’re based on different ways of storytelling and thus also evoke different responses.
Drive Your Plow, a semi-crime novel for no better term, follows the story of a bunch of local misfits, told from the perspective of probably the most eccentric one of them – an elderly woman, Janina Duszejko, who’s an eager animal rights advocate, astrology believer and Blake enthusiast. Faced with a string of unexplained murders, Duszejko comes up with an unusual theory, claiming that the bloody homicides are the result of a revenge plan plotted by local wildlife, which is being poached by the villagers. Throughout the novel, the remote setting of the Sudety Mountains recalls numerous Blake references, and the story’s gory imagery enforces a Gothic ambience. Complemented by a dose of subtle yet sophisticated humour, the self-conscious quality of the writing makes Drive Your Plow an important contemporary read, which contributes to the ongoing conversation about humankind’s place in the world and cosmos.
Solid acting, breathtaking photography and the importance of the subject matter combined make its film version, Spoor, an enjoyable film. However, the film lacks the subtlety that the book uses so well. Drive Your Plow reads like an existential exploration of morality, predestination and the complicated relation between humans and nature with some clever social commentary; Spoor’s more of an overt political statement. The nuance of Tokarczuk’s writing seems lost among the film’s exaggeratedly tragic background stories, while its mission to expose the hypocrisy of the Church and to question small town morality is perhaps a little too obvious.
It’s not accidental that Holland, an important figure of political cinema since the early 80s and the director of Europe, Europe (1991) and In Darkness (2011), chose this particular novel at this particular time. Timing’s essential here to understand the work’s political implications. As Tokarczuk said during the Q&A, Drive Your Plow turned out to be quite a prophetical novel. Poland’s right-wing Law and Justice party (PiS), which won the electoral vote in 2015, has been conducting an extreme campaign of anti-environmental measures like excessive hunting, cutting down national forests, and extensive coal mining in the name of ‘Christian traditions’. Its conservative agenda goes hand in hand with public prejudice, the praising of traditional masculinity, entwined with a lack of tolerance for sexual minorities, and an attempt to remove women from public life. In such an oppressive political context, the story of Duszejko naturally makes a great starting point for a film that fits into the recent tendency in Polish film to show opposition to the current government. Yet it’s a pity that the artistic and somewhat magical quality of the original text has been compromised by the director’s political agenda. Having said this, it’s still worth watching Spoor despite of its ostentatious nature – for its compelling acting, its spectacular visual tribute to the Polish countryside, and its exposure of animal cruelty. And based on Tokarczuk’s continuing success of both at home and abroad, it will be wonderful to see more of her novels being transformed into other artistic media.
Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead was published by Fitzcarraldo Editions in 2018. The screening of Spoor + Q&A took place at Curzon Bloomsbury on 16 October 2018.