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Mathias Énard: The Annual Banquet of the Gravediggers' Guild review - a man of infinite death | reviews, news & interviews

Mathias Énard: The Annual Banquet of the Gravediggers' Guild review - a man of infinite death

Mathias Énard: The Annual Banquet of the Gravediggers' Guild review - a man of infinite death

A modern morality tale teeming with morbid excess

Énard writes a cycle of limitless rebirthCourtesy of Fitzcarraldo

"Death, as a general statement, is so easy of utterance, of belief", wrote Amy Levy, "it is only when we come face to face with it that we find the great mystery so cruelly hard to realise; for death, like love, is ever old and ever new". In Mathias Énard’s sprawling, massy, magisterial tales of death and life, and love, this sense of endless decay and rebirth assumes many faces, only some of them cruel.

The novel begins conventionally enough. We are introduced to the rather petulant, yet self-mocking voice of our protagonist and hapless anthropologist, David Mazon, via the form of his "ethnographer’s jotter", which he intends to keep alongside his fieldwork as he researches a PhD on agrarian life in a country village far flung from his native Paris. Through this, we become acquainted with many of the inhabitants of La Pierre-Saint-Christophe, including: a lustful (yet celibate) priest; an artist practising in pictures of his own excrement; and a clutch of drunken gravediggers who await, soddenly, the temporary truce with Death that will initiate the eponymous Banquet of the Gravedigger’s Guild.

So far does Énard dispense with generality, that each of his characters assumes specific (and multiple) past- and after-lives. There’s Lucie, for instance, a vegetable seller and environmental activist, with whom Mazon forms a serious bond. Little does he know, however, that she has also been, in former lives, "a protestant victim", "a zealous revolutionary", and "a host of farmers". No less a figure than Catherine Medici, on the other hand, is seen to attain an uneasy afterlife as a moth much taken to the flame. One character even assumes a brief, tempestuous life as a storm. In this way, death is enlivened by a constant proximity to the human beings, animals, and other occupants of the excessively material world that saunter, stomp, or bumble through Énard’s pages. It ravages and renews with a fecundity that echoes out into the countryside to which Mazon (much to his surprise) finds himself warming. Énard’s name for death is the Wheel, ‘which is here on Earth and nowhere else’, and which is forever flinging beings into existence, or else crushing them under the axle.

Mazon’s account of his wayward life in the village is frequently funny, and this particular sense of humour is honoured by Frank Wynne’s lucid, textural translation. Anyone who has had the misfortune of having a paper rejected from an academic journal, for instance, might sympathise with Mazon’s torrid abuse of "Monsieur-le-fucking-peer-reviewer" and also with his concluding line to the entry: "I feel sick, I can’t stop crying, so I’m going back to bed". Sinking further into both academic ennui and the agricultural life of his adopted village, the reader might expect to be confined to the ethnographer’s jotter for the remaining pages. As the only certainties in this life are death and taxes (or, we might say, debts to be paid), however, this expectation meets a just and abrupt check at the advent of one of several short "Songs" which punctuate Énard’s text. These lyrical short stories detail various deaths: from the murder of a beautiful flower-seller who dies in the arms of the cobbler who loves her, to that of a broken-boned Jacques – representative of an over-taxed and under-fed population – who dies in agony upon a wheel, this time of man’s own creation.      

Indeed, these Songs represent one of Énard’s most interesting innovations. They are often powerfully moving. One, in particular, treats of a sick-at-stomach mother who, for the first time since their murder at the hands of the Nazis, returns to where her three young children lived and died. Here, as elsewhere, there is reverence for what death takes away, but also what it can give, for there is some solace in the concluding assertion that "no one ever dies instantly".

The Annual Banquet of the Gravediggers' GuildThe reverence for death persists throughout the novel, though in a markedly different strain. This is especially the case when we reach the Banquet that directly precedes the Song mentioned above, held when the Wheel pauses and the gravediggers, crypt keepers, and various other purveyors in the mortal line are allowed a few days to glut themselves on prodigious amounts of food and wine. Death – "the big-hearted strumpet" – might be considered to have a seat at the table and is regularly toasted. Occupying a central position in the novel, the scene flauntingly attests to Énard’s Rabelaisian influence, recapping the latter’s tales of Gargantua and Pantagruel, whilst paying homage to a style that luxuriates in the sensuous excesses of the human body. The gravediggers are bawdy, garrulous, gluttonous, and most bear names relating to the male member whose virility they champion in the form of Gargantua. Yet, funnily enough, they also advocate for the rights of women (voting to include them in the next banquet) and debate the concept of eco-burial.

Over a mountain of dishes like buttered frogs’ legs, langoustines slick with mayonnaise, steaming plates of oyster au gratin, eels stuffed to the gills with crab meat, and a suckling pig with chocolate sauce, the diners alternate between philosophical questions, carnivalesque cavorting, and red and white wine, the precise taste and origin of which is entered into with forensic detail. The result is impressive, contributing to a state of reading akin to a fever-dream. As with all hangovers, however, re-entering the world again, as in returning to the wider novel, is difficult, and the section is probably least successful for this reason.

There are, however, some beautifully drawn characters in this work, including Lucie’s brother Arnaud, who can "read people like a book" on account of his being the one person with access to the former lives of his companions. The phrasing chosen by Wynne to express this ability also reminds us of literature’s own power of (re)incarnation. Our access to other lives must enhance how we sense our own. Like the red worms which Mazon ruthlessly dissolves with bleach – bearing the souls of countless murderers and executioners with them – multitudes of life creep from the drains of existence in the book to startle us with their horror. But other things emerge from this kinship with decay that assert life’s extraordinary pleasure. At the heart of The Annual Banquet lies the futility of Mazon’s thesis, which purposes to dissect the contemporary agrarian life. For what chance does the contemporary stand in the face of ageless Death?  

Énard’s name for death is the Wheel, which is forever flinging beings into existence, or else crushing them under the axle

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Average: 4 (1 vote)

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