Fiction | France

In the French countryside

In his new novel, Mathias Énard observes French rural life in the 21st century as though it were a strange, foreign culture 

A raft is sailing on a river. A woman in white is sitting on the raft. A man in a top hat and black coat is steering the raft. In the middle is a huge three-flame candlestick.

Savoir-vivre: Boating on a canal in the French département of Deux-Sèvres

Profound meditations on life are not exactly the strength of the protagonist in French author, Mathias Énard's new book, The Annual Banquet of the Gravediggers' Guild (in German, Das Jahresbankett der Totengräber). David Mazon is a 29-year-old student of anthropology from Paris.

His grandiose theory: There is no longer any demographic diversity to be found in the big city. So he moves to the countryside to do his fieldwork, to a small village in the department of Deux-Sèvres, a marshy area just beyond the Atlantic coast. 

The land is criss-crossed by thousands of small canals, forcing farmers to take their cows to pasture one by one, in small barges.  In the village today there's a new housing development and the only remaining bar in the small town is a fisherman's cafe, where chubby Thomas hands out aniseed-flavoured spirits.

The book's protagonist, David, records the results of his halting research in his diary slowly. He gets to know the villagers, who all turn out to be very different types. He plays cards with the usual suspects down at the café, including all the old-timers and an artist who fled high rents in Paris – and possibly also a mid-life crisis – and who has converted an old courtyard into a studio, where he creates his monstrous paintings. 

Also among the locals, an elderly British couple who have settled in the French countryside. He enjoys the seclusion, she likes the socialising. And David pays special attention to Lucie, a rough and ready 35-year-old who grows organic vegetables together with her ex-boyfriend. Lucie also take care of her cousin, Arnaud, who is known as the village's idiot savant because of his way with numbers. 

The number of characters in the novel are of an almost Tolstoian proportion. The fact the village's mayor, Monsieur Martial, also happens to be the local undertaker is obviously no coincidence. In French, the word gravedigger, or “fossoyeur”, literally means the carrying of something to the grave – for example, a way of life. 

“The good life: A boat party on a canal in the Deux-Sèvres area” 

The reader is just starting to tire of David's writer's block when the novel switches to an observatory stance. It starts to follow the souls of the dead, who have been reincarnated as worms, and mainly because of the way they conducted themselves in their previous lives. The worms in the bathroom that drive David crazy were evil-doers in their past lives.  

And the village cleric, who died the previous year, is now a wild pig frolicking in the fields. In his dreams, autistic Nono catches scraps of his former life; it seems he owes his aptitude for numbers to a spiritual ancestor. Other souls, like that of the habitual card player Patarin, are born with the same blind certainty every time they remount the wheel of life.  

It is through this retelling of Buddhist philosophy that Énard invites the reader to inspect French history. The souls in the book date back to different times too, to the Roman empire or the Huguenot wars. But the novel also looks to the future, toward the 20th and 21st centuries which are described as a time of great extinction, to be followed by a later blossoming.

Énard's cartoonish wheel of life seems endlessly propelled by inescapable lust and hedonism. In fact, real love is conspicuous by its absence, which makes the novel occasionally depressing. 

This wheel of life stands still only once a year – during the gravediggers' annual banquet. The descriptions of the banquet are so surreal and so bombastic that they're likely to inspire hunger in the reader. You feel like you need to put the book down to go and get yourself a nice slice of camembert. 

The “chansons” that appear on the pages here and there, which offer short re-tellings of French folk songs, only appear briefly. 

There is no question that Énard is a wonderful writer. In his bestselling novel, “Compass”, which won him the prestigious French literary prize, the Prix Goncourt, in 2015, an expert in Arab culture spends a sleepless night after receiving a surprising letter from his colleague and love, Sarah. Incidentally Sarah has just discovered Buddhism. 

The main character in Compass becomes melancholy as he remembers a Syria before the civil war. In the book, readers learn about Arabic poetry, the history of oriental studies and how precarious employment in this field can be. 

Énard himself actually wanted a career in that same sector and lived in the Middle East for many years. Compass offers genuine insights into how one becomes so enamoured of, and interested in, another culture.

Compared to his other novels, which take place in foreign climes, this book happens on home turf for Énard. He actually grew up in Niort, a town in Deux-Sèvres. The extended descriptions of the culinary delights in the region seems to be another topic that very much enthuses the author. In Barcelona, Spain, where Énard currently resides, he owns a Lebanese restaurant called Karakala.

“The number of characters in the novel are of an almost Tolstoian proportion. The fact the village’s mayor also happens to be the local undertaker is no coincidence”

At the end of the gravediggers’ novel, David says something that could actually be applied to the whole of this tome. David talks about an interview he conducted with Lucie's senile grandfather, during his research, saying that the experience was time consuming and very difficult to digest but also absolutely irreplaceable. 

This is why the outstanding translators of this novel into German, Holger Fock and Sabine Müller, deserve not just our respect but also our sympathy. This annual banquet is no simple meal. But at the same time it is irreplaceable – in other words, a little bizarre and incomparable. 

Using the lens of Buddhist philosophy and the kind of literary exuberance we know from magic-realist authors like Latin-American author Roberto Bolaño, the French novelist draws us an odd panorama of a European society.  

The most pressing contemporary questions – urbanisation, the loss of traditions and impending environmental collapse – are addressed in some historical depth here, but it is a depth that could only be achieved through the use of magic and surrealism. 

Das Jahresbankett der Totengräber (original, Le Banquet annuel de la confrérie des fossoyeurs) by Mathias Énard. Published by Hanser, Berlin, 2021.

Translated by Cathrin Schaer