What makes a life worth living?
Robert Seethaler lets the dead of an entire town have their say. All of them are buried in the same place, a graveyard called ‘The Field’. The Austrian writer weaves their stories into a place of desires – those that have been fulfilled, but even more so those that haven’t.
By Eva Fritsch
The book begins in a graveyard, and it ends there as well – a hermetically sealed setting. Seethaler’s latest novel Das Feld [The Field] focuses on the dead, and on the question: What stories would they tell if we let them speak? Only the first, introductory chapter is given over to a living person – a man contemplating the dead on a cemetery bench: “He imagined what it would be like if each of those voices were given another opportunity to be heard. Naturally, they would talk about life.”
What follows are 29 memories that the author amalgamates into a small kaleidoscope. Small, because it is a self-contained cosmos Seethaler creates here, given that the novel revolves around the characters of the fictitious small town of Paulstadt. Sometimes Seethaler dedicates longer chapters to them, sometimes just one word (“Idiots.”). The Austrian writer, whose previous novel traced the fate of one individual in Ein ganzes Leben [A Whole Life], touches on questions of meaning here that occupy the living, and, at least according to the novel, the dead as well: What makes a life worth living? What remains when, as in death, nothing matters anymore? Thus the book is a story by the dead, written for the living; in one of the chapters, for example, a father is giving his still-living son some advice: “Don’t go to any trouble finding the right woman. She doesn’t exist.”
Memories of desires, dreams and regretsEach in its own way, the stories unfold a pull, – since the ages of the dead vary, they talk about different times – yet time and again, their memories revolve around similar things: desires, dreams and regrets. Each of the voices shares Seethaler’s timbre, a sober language that occasionally speaks words of wisdom: “After all, we start dying as soon as we think about death for the first time.”
Some of the short sequences, written in the first person, are more closely interrelated than others: Mother and daughter, husband and wife are lying next to each other in their graves. There is young Martha, for example, who always thought of her husband Robert as too timid and insecure: “He didn’t know how to deal with the facts of life.” We catch a glimpse of Seethaler’s sense of humour in the following chapter when this very same Robert narrates their relationship from his point of view: “She thought we were like two diverging branches on a trunk. But that wasn’t the case. We didn’t have any common roots.” It seems almost ironic when Martha is ultimately buried underneath the debris of the collapsing Paulstadt Leisure Centre, yet her husband never finds out because he has finally gathered the courage to leave her.
Taking stock of a life and a townThe dead storytellers are taking stock. One of them is Franz Straubein, who looks back on his life in short sentences, like an inventory list: “Twelve hospital stays. Seventeen relatives. Three women.” The Field is not just the record of various human lives but also that of a town: For just like life itself is a story of life and decline, the town’s story is characterised by development and destruction as well. After all, two important Paulstadt buildings are closely linked to its citizens’ lives: On both occasions, the people of Paulstadt – directly or indirectly – contribute to the destruction, both times people die.
Thanks to his poised writing style, Seethaler successfully manages not to lose himself in trite, pretentious phrases that might suggest themselves in a format like a retrospective. Yet it’s hard to shake the feeling that we have seen characters like these elsewhere, have heard stories like these before: The gentle Arab greengrocer or the indecisive young man who succumbs to gambling are characters that seem archetypal. Yet what could be a potential weakness of the novel may well be its very strength: The characters are approachable, allowing seemingly banal stories to develop their appeal in the first place. It is the appeal – provided you read the novel more than once – of discovering ever more and new ties and connections between Paulstadt’s dead.
Seethaler, Robert: Das Feld
Berlin: Hanser Berlin 2018, 240 S.
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