A series of deaths mystifies a small Polish village.
When her neighbor Big Foot turns up dead one night, Janina Duszejko and another neighbor, Oddball, rush to his house to lay out the body and properly dress him. They’re having trouble getting hold of the police, and, as Oddball points out, “He’ll be stiff as a board before they get here.” Janina and Oddball—and Big Foot, up till now—live in an out-of-the-way Polish village on the Czech border. It’s rural, and remote, and most of the other inhabitants are part-time city-dwellers who only show up in the summer, when the weather is more temperate. Janina narrates Tokarczuk’s (Flights, 2018) latest creation to appear in English. But she wouldn’t like to hear herself referred to by that name, which she thinks is “scandalously wrong and unfair.” In fact, she explains, “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”—hence “Oddball” and “Big Foot.” Janina spends much of her time studying astrology and, on Fridays, translating passages of Blake with former pupil Dizzy, who comes to visit. But after Big Foot dies, other bodies start turning up, and Janina and her neighbors are drawn further and further into the mystery of their deaths. Some of the newly dead were involved in illegal activities, but Janina is convinced that “Animals” (she favors a Blakean style of capitalization) are responsible. Tokarczuk’s novel is a riot of quirkiness and eccentricity, and the mood of the book, which shifts from droll humor to melancholy to gentle vulnerability, is unclassifiable—and just right. Tokarczuk’s mercurial prose seems capable of just about anything. Like the prizewinning Flights, this novel resists the easy conventions of the contemporary work of fiction.
In her depictions of her characters and their worlds—both internal and external—Tokarczuk has created something entirely new.