Give dead bones a voice and they speak volumes: George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo was clamorous with the departed having their say. Edgar Lee Masters, 100 years earlier, startled the American literary world with Spoon River Anthology, poems that were miniature autobiographies of the occupants of a small Illinois graveyard.
Now, The Field by the Austrian novelist Robert Seethaler has the post-lifers of a German town delivering their own epitaphs. In a neglected corner of an old cemetery a man sits on a bench, listening to the people whose resting place this is. Who they were. The lives they led. Not damned souls from Dante’s circles, or creatures in limbo, but local citizens, focusing on a moment that shaped their life, or the moment it ended. Each chapter has a name — its own headstone.
Some stories are brief, others ramble. People fall in love. Fall out. A mother and child escape wartime slaughter. A man pinpoints the playground moment when his life began to go wrong. The endearing Muslim greengrocer and the town priest argue passionately about truth and imperfection, and end up shouting at each other about God: ‘May His Mercy drop also into your heart, said the priest, and give me two bunches of spring onions.’ On another day the same priest, in a delirium of exaltation, ignites a spectacular auto-da-fé.
From her grave a woman recalls her 67 lovers: the romantic who scattered rose petals on her bed, the poet who smelled of ink, the weirdos, and the uniquely normal one she loved till the end. Lives criss-cross, actions have unforeseen consequences — a corrupt property deal results in an unsafe building and innocent deaths, but a happy old age for an innocent farmer. A wife with a gambling-addict husband moonlights as a chambermaid in a hotel for travelling salesmen, sad men who pay her for sex and sympathy and tell her their dreams. She remembers the men; the smell of them, ‘the tangled beds with their tangled dreams’. Some stories cover the same ground seen from revelatory different perspectives. Gradually we become part of the town; feel its heartbeat.
Seethaler’s The Tobacconist wittily juxtaposed an unlikely friendship between a shop assistant and Freud in 1930s Vienna. A Whole Life was shortlisted for the International Booker. Like both those, The Field is translated by Charlotte Collins, who flawlessly conveys the melancholy, tender, comic observation and quiet force of Seethaler’s prose.