There was a TV series that I enjoyed watching while living in France called Un village français (A French Village). It followed the years of the German occupation of France during WW2 in a small village near the Franco-Swiss border. The logline of the first season was ‘1940 – living means having to choose’, and it presents a far more nuanced picture of the different degrees of resistance or collaboration, accommodation or destruction in those murky times. Every village and every community has a wealth of different characters and points of view, and the threads that link all of the people over time are fascinating.
I was reminded of this TV series while reading Robert Seethaler’s latest novel The Field, which attempts to capture the history of the fictional village – or tiny town – of Paulstadt, through the conceit of hearing the voices of those buried in its cemetery, called ‘the field’ by the locals. There are certain elements which make us think this is an Austrian village (not least because the Austrian author has always set his novels in his native country, even though he is now living in Berlin), but in fact it could be anywhere in Central Europe, with its fluid borders, Catholicism and recent prosperity that hasn’t always translated well into the rural environment.
What is of course incontestable is that, in death, all of the people are equal, even though in life they may have been rich or poor, corrupt or fair, winner or loser, kind or horrible, immigrant or refugee or native. The village has had its share of tragedies and small triumphs, its corrupt councillors and odd priests, its failed development initiatives. It is very ordinary and yet, in this patient enumeration of its inhabitants, their hopes and fears and dreams and disappointments, it reminds us that no place is ordinary.
Some of the voices call out and respond to each other, some replay family dramas or contradict each other or regret things. It helps perhaps to think of each voice as a piece of prose poetry or flash fiction. Some are funny, others are lyrical, some are quite dramatic and they all gradually build up to give you a picture of an entire community. Because they are presented in the higgledy-piggedly order you might come across names in a graveyard, it’s hard at first to make sense of the cacophony of voices. I would certainly recommend dipping in and out of the book for a first reading, and then rereading it to observe all of the connections. Although very well-written, I did wonder if the same cumulative effect could have been achieved with slightly fewer voices – but then I seem to keep on saying about each book that it could have been shorter! Which seems rather ungenerous, given that this book is only 240 pages long, so not a massive tome.
This is the kind of novel that will inevitably get readers to wonder what makes for a life well lived. It’s difficult to pick just one quote, because the book is full of beautiful passages, but here is one example that amused me, taken from one of the less sympathetic characters (funny, but also very moving, particularly reading it in 2021):
Some young people have been picknicking on our grave lately on mild summer evenings… They picked this grave because it’s got a huge slab of black Labrador marble that retains the heat of sun until well after nightfall. There they sit, yattering non-stop, the most egregious nonsense, spilling their beer, which trickles over our family name… Sometimes young Schwitters pees against the back of the gravestone, and the girls all giggle and shriek. I resent them for it. I hate them for their stupidity and their beauty. I hate them for the miracle inside them, on which they waste not a single thought behind their hot, unwrinkled foreheads.
Can someone go and ask them to stay forever?