The Gravediggers’ Guild’s Annual Banquet: A Review of Life, Love, and Language by Mathias Énard.
The new novel by acclaimed French writer Mathias Énard, recipient of the prestigious Prix Goncourt and nominee for the International Booker prize, opens with a quote from the Buddha: “In our past lives, we have all existed as elements of nature such as earth, stone, dew, wind, fire, moss, tree, insect, fish, turtle, bird, and mammal.” The main idea of The Annual Banquet of the Gravediggers’ Guild revolves around the concept of the “wheel of suffering,” where the souls of all living beings are reborn into a different form immediately after death. For instance, murderers may be reincarnated as red worms wriggling “side by side” under a damp shower tray in a dilapidated rural annex rented by an anthropologist studying “the modern countryside lifestyle.”
The book is also a tribute to the Deux-Sèvres region, where Énard spent his early years. This area is mostly rural and lies to the east of Vendée, 100km away from the Atlantic port city of La Rochelle. During a visit to a farmers’ market in Coulonges, the comically pompous anthropologist overhears the dialect of Poitevin-Saintongeais being spoken by the vendors selling vegetables and poultry. At a seafood stall, he sees crabs, lobsters, and oysters displayed on ice, waiting to be returned to the ocean and reborn in various forms. The fishmongers and farmers’ wives are unaware that their products were once living beings.
The cycle of pain allows Énard to travel through time, portraying the complex and often violent history of the area. The natural world holds many layers of religious significance. Lynn Guérineau, a wealthy hairdresser with revealing clothing, resides in the city of Noirt and drives her Renault through the surrounding towns: “Sainte-Pezenne, Saint-Maxire, Saint-Florent, Saint-Liguaire … a long chain of miraculous places that, to her, formed a beautiful geographic poem. The map was like a sacred container, and even someone unaware of the stories behind these names couldn’t help but feel the region’s holiness.”
Enard is cleverly and rebelliously defying tradition. After the death of the final priest in the village of La-Pierre-Saint-Christophe, he returns as a feral boar and meets his first female in a wooded area near the presbytery next to the Romanesque church where Father Largeau passed away and transformed into a pig.
In the meantime, the workers responsible for burying the deceased tirelessly carry out their duties, with the exception of three days each year when they come together for their annual feast. During this time, Death grants them permission to celebrate and temporarily forget “the inevitable fate that awaits us all – to be embraced by Death, our final lover, without distinction.” The Gravediggers’ Guild does not allow women as members, but the possibility of their inclusion is a subject of debate, reminiscent of the type of discussions that may have occurred in prestigious universities like Oxford and Cambridge in the past. “Women? You propose to have women join us? I fear, Gnarlcock, that your decision-making is guided by your sexual desires, rather than rational thought. Such a weak and insignificant masculinity.”
Napoleon’s time in Noirt, as he journeyed to exile on St Helena, is depicted in this lively novel through the character of Tubby Thomas, a present-day bar owner who was once a female bedbug in July 1815. As she scurries over Napoleon’s leg in the sweltering heat, he crushes her, causing her to slip into unconsciousness. She struggles to comprehend her rebirth in the Wheel and her subsequent transformation into another body, just a fleeting moment in the cycle of continuous lives. Eventually, she takes on the form of Tubby Thomas, serving drinks to an anthropologist who will never truly grasp the essence of Deux-Sèvres.
Frank Wynne’s translation of this remarkable novel also serves as a tribute to all translators throughout history. One scene in the story features a female character named Pélagie who responds to a male judge’s inquiries in the Poitevin-Saintongeais dialect. The judge demands that she speak French, stating, “Do you understand this woman? Speak French! Clerk, tell the woman to speak French.” In the acknowledgments, Wynne expresses gratitude to Scottish translator Matthew Mackie for assisting him in translating Pélagie’s responses into Scots: “Weel, is thon no juist braw, a puckle o pudgie pompus pricks wi thair crannies up thair erses,” which translates to “Fat pompous bastards with their fingers up their arses,” as the court clerk explained, and I believe she is insulting the judge. Despite its somber title and subject matter, this novel is a vast celebration of life, love, and language.