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To Live and Die (and be Reborn) in Deux-Sèvres

Written By Samantha Rich

Samantha Rich is a lifelong fan of speculative fiction. She lives in Michigan with a (bossy) cat and a (nervous) dog. She can be found writing, reading, kayaking, or out looking for the mysterious.

From the title, The Annual Banquet of the Gravediggers’ Guild promises to be a book about death. And it is; the titular banquet is the centerpiece of the novel, stories of war and murder are woven through the narrative, and the deaths of nonhuman living things from livestock to wild animals to vegetables are all touched on as having deep meaning.

But like most stories about death, Gravediggers’ Guild is equally about life, and what it means to live in the current moment, with all of history behind us and around us (and ahead of us, thanks to a central conceit of the story).

The novel is a love letter to the Deux-Sèvres region of France and its rural, agricultural history. The author, Mathias Énard, spent his childhood in the region, and his deep affection for it comes through the narrative, first filtered through the eyes of David, an enthusiastic but clueless Parisian graduate student who comes there to write a dissertation on what it means to live in the country nowadays. After introducing us to the village of La Pierre-Saint-Christophe and its inhabitants through David, the narrative moves back to show the bigger picture of what’s going on, all the truths that David is oblivious to.

To be fair, the villagers are oblivious as well to the great Wheel of Suffering turning around them. Everything that lives in the Deux-Sèvres is caught up in an endless cycle of reincarnation, from trees and insects to pigs and humans. Individual souls move back and forth between all of these categories, with particularly gruesome murderers spending multiple lifetimes as annelid worms living in a mildewed bathroom and beloved grandmothers returning as equally beloved family dogs.

The only people aware of the presence of Death around them are the gravediggers, funeral directors, and others who are directly involved with it in a hands-on way. Once a year, Death gives these men (and they are all men, which sparks debate among them) three days off for their banquet, where they celebrate life by gorging themselves on food and challenging each other to reach absurd heights of oratory.

The banquet sits at the center of the text, with David’s observations forming the beginning and end. In the remaining sections of the first and last halves, a third-person omniscient narrator carries us around the region, dipping in and out of history to tell us about the lives of the villagers we’ve met. Particularly effective are the short “Song” chapters that break up longer sections, where we are given  brief glimpses of individual lives and deaths in the region’s history.

The soul of the local priest, who died just before David came to town, lives on in the body of a wild boar, enjoying frolicking in the snow and mating with every sow he can find. The local bartender was (or will eventually be; the rules of incarnation here move souls forward and backward in time indiscriminately) a bedbug who bit Napoleon shortly before he was sent into exile. The dog that loyally follows David’s love interest around her farmhouse is, in fact, her own grandmother in a new body.

It’s emphasized that most souls are neither very good nor very bad people, and so they remain in the Deux-Sèvres life after life as farmers and villagers, occasionally getting caught up in the wars of religion that raged through the region over the centuries. The cycle of life and death binds them to the land over and over again, either tending to it, growing in it, or walking its surface with four feet.

The overall effect is to show how history and today are deeply interwoven and can’t be separated. The presence of David, the naive anthropologist who doesn’t even think to begin shifting his city-based viewpoint until he’s been in the region for months and begun to fall in love, allows the story to demonstrate how even if we’re not aware of life and death, they’re going on all around us all the time. The world carries on, whether or not we notice. David’s shifts of allegiance over the course of the novel, from Paris to the Deux-Sèvres and from academia to agriculture, show the subconscious desire to be part of this cycle and grounded in the world.

All of this is ambitious work for one novel, and it doesn’t succeed across the board. The framing device of David’s perspective demonstrates that key obliviousness, but inherent with that is a sense of disconnection. These opening and closing sections don’t quite click with the rest of the novel; we go from an airplane’s-level view to being down with the bees in the grass, and it’s disorienting.

Énard also draws on the vast French canon of literature, philosophy, and the vast overlap between them; the oratory at the Banquet involves several retellings of Rabelais, among other duels of quotations. This also creates some disconnection from the text for those not deeply steeped in the canon. To be fair, this may be an intentional device, to create the feeling that there’s something big happening just out of sight, just beyond what we can grasp with our understanding of the world.

Gravediggers’ Guild is well worth the reading. The descriptions of the natural beauty of the region alone (fields and forests, punting on a river, the priest-boar’s revels in the woods) are well worth tackling the Rabelais. The digressions on language (the regional dialect, Poitevin-Saintongeais, stymies David and features heavily in one of the murders that the narrative carries us back in time to) are fascinating, and the operatic scope of the Banquet revelries (the guildmaster takes two pages to list everything he ate and drank; there is a sense that the feasting and speeches are the purest distillation of what it is to be human and alive) all linger after the last page.

Énard offers a sweeping view of life, death, and how each person is simultaneously a very small piece in a great game and the owner of the only perspective they can possibly have on it all.