An old woman living remotely in a Polish forest is woken at night by her neighbour, Oddball. He’s seen the light on in Big Foot’s kitchen, heard his dog barking, and thinks something’s happened to Big Foot. The two set off to investigate and come upon a horrid sight: Big Foot’s twisted corpse lying on the floor of his squalid rural home. He’d choked on a bone from the deer he’d hunted, killed and cooked- the deer’s head and hooves are found by our narrator.
So begins this tale of rural noir, set in a small community near the Polish town of Klødzko, near the Czech border. The narrator, Janine Duszejko, ( though she rejects her name for reasons I didn’t really grasp) is an eccentric: she’s fascinated by astrology and thinks the actions of her fellow human beings, as well as world events, are determined by the stars. She’s an ardent animal lover and some of the writing I liked best was of animals: here the white foxes, moving slowly, one behind the other. Their whiteness against the green meadow was like something from another world. They looked like the diplomatic service of the animal kingdom, come here to reconnoitre. Her love for animals means she’s outraged by the local hunting community, their trapping, poaching and exploitation, and it emerges that one of her missions is to go through the forest releasing animals from the hunters’ traps. When further deaths follow she’s convinced that animals wreaking vengeance are to blame and writes letters to the police telling them so.
Though the narrator is a self sufficient loner, living on the windy plateau known as the Luftzug, she has some friends who are also misfits, or outsiders. Her former pupil, Dizzy,works for the police in IT, but his real passion is for the poetry of William Blake, which is quoted and referred to throughout the novel, becoming a lens through which to see the world, like astrology. She’s fond of Good News, a young woman whose family background meant she was never able to study, and who now runs a shop in town, a mixture of socialist cafe, dry cleaners and fancy-dress costume hire. During the novel she meets Boros, an entomologist investigating the endangered flat bark beetle in her local forest. Then there’s her kindly dermatologist, Dr. Ali, himself a nomad, never staying in one place for longer than two years, who prepares her all kind of exotic ointments and whose phone, he claims, is tapped.
As the novel progresses through the subsequent deaths, the investigations and the community’s speculation, these individuals with their eccentricities and Ailments (and they’ve nearly all got some only occasionally specified health problems) emerge as pitted against the powerful forces of the hunters. We first meet the hunters, those moustachioed men, at the funeral of Big Foot, where they insist that Janine, as the only woman, leads the singing. It becomes clear that the hunters hold the reins of power in this area and their proximity to the Catholic church is hinted at when our narrator expresses her disgust for the elevated hunting platforms, known as pulpits. The true relationship between the hunters and the Catholic church becomes clear towards the end of the book at the extraordinary St. Hubert’s day service, when Father Rustle praises the hunters for helping the Lord God in his act of creation by maintaining stock numbers through the provision of feeding racks for deer, then culling them. It’s like inviting someone to dinner and murdering them, thinks Janine.
The power and delight of this novel lies for me in the character of Janine-I’ve alluded to only a few aspects of her eccentricity here-and her take on the world around her, which we see through her eyes. I enjoyed her careful description of the rural landscape through the changing seasons, and her sense of topography put me in mind of Esther Kinsky’s account of her Italian stay in the first part of her book Hain ( shortly to be published in English as Grove). She combines the practical brain of an engineer- she built bridges before her Ailments rendered her unable to work-with the cosmic worldview of the astrologist philosopher and these two poles are sometimes juxtaposed to comic effect in the book: I laughed at loud at her wondering whether Father Rustle’s administration of the host in communion wouldn’t be aided by a small dishwasher, the kind that fits one set of tableware; he’d only have to press a button and there’d be more time for his sermon. And the success of the regular back and forth in tone from the lofty, cosmic flights of fancy to the vernacular of the humdrum everyday is a testimony to the skill of the translator, Antonia Lloyd-Jones. Still, there was rather too much astrology in the book for me, a world view I’m not that interested in, and only stuck with because it was explained by such a refreshingly unusual narrative voice.
The final denouément brings us back to the beginning, positioning the narrative again in the realm of crime fiction, but the book is also to my mind an account of the struggle of individuals and the vulnerable (including animals) against power and authority in today’s Poland. For me it’s been an intriguing introduction to the work of Olga Tokarczuk, now a Nobel prize winner, and I’m looking forward to reading more of her work.