November 2018 Before the Feast: rewriting the old stories

Book cover: Before the Feast by Saša Stanišić
Cover © Pushkin Press

My all-time favourite author has to be the remarkable Ali Smith: the multiplicity and generosity of perspectives as There but for the and The Accidental interweave the tales of different characters; her blurring of the boundaries between fact and fiction in Shire; the playfulness, irreverence and joy in language which infuses her work. So it is a high compliment indeed when I compare a book to those of my beloved Ali – but with Before the Feast, Saša Stanišić has made the grade.

Before the Feast (tr. Anthea Bell) is a sprawling novel set over a single day and night in Fürstenfelde, a village in East Germany (one of many) in which “more people die than are born”. The chapters switch between the perspectives of Anna (about to leave for university), Herr Schramm (“former lieutenant-colonel in the National People’s Army, then a forester, now a pensioner and also, because the pension doesn’t go far enough, moonlighting for Von Blankenburg Agricultural Machinery”) and a fox, among others, always mediated by the chorus of the village, an amorphous, wry “we”:

“Nature takes back its own. Or that’s what they’d say in other places. We don’t say so, because it’s nonsense. Nature is not logical. You can’t rely on Nature. And if you can’t rely on something you’d better not build fine phrases out of it.”

The novel takes place on the eve of the village’s annual Anna Feast. Although no one seems to know quite what the feast marks, the timing opens up the tale to the lore of the village – from gossip of dances and political informants to medieval myths – and through this to a sense of the strange, the uncanny. Figures wander the streets who cannot quite exist, like the rhyming duo, Henry and Q, who are oddly familiar from village myths. Stanišić resists the urge to explain the night’s mysteries, leaving the reader chewing on puzzles long after the final page. Who did ring the bells that night, and were those really wolves?

To me, Ali Smith is one of the true inheritors of the modernists – and Stanišić shares her generosity of vision, her deft lightness of touch. Before the Feast constantly undercuts itself: part of the satisfaction of the read comes from the way Stanišić builds up the folklore of the place – and yet his characters question whether such histories aren’t “remarkably clumsy forgeries”, while those who take history too seriously are drawn into scenes of tragic farce. The author’s affection for the place and its people is evident, yet the novel resists nostalgia, slipping instead from mourning through irony to joy and back again.

I was reading Before the Feast when I heard the news that its translator, Anthea Bell, had died. In the world of translation, Bell was a giant – a translator of Kafka and Sebald best known for the glorious puns (Dogmatix! Vitalstatistix!) in her Asterix translations. This playfulness shines through in her rendition of Stansic’s mock-solemn Fürstenfelde archive, while her sensitivity is apparent in her capturing of the book’s varied and layered registers. It is a surprising, remarkable book, and a fitting memorial to a great translator.

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