Back in 2015, I reviewed Robert Seethaler’s A Whole Life, a beautifully written novella about a man who’d barely left his mountain hamlet, revealing the richness of even the simplest of lives. The following year’s The Tobacconist, set in Vienna in the months before Hitler annexed Austria, was equally striking raising high hopes for his new novel, The Field, with its intriguing premise of telling the story of a small town through the voices of its dead.
He thought that perhaps a person could only really pass judgement on their life once they had gone through death
An elderly man visits the place the townspeople still call the field, daily. He knew more than a few of those buried there and sometimes he’s sure he hears them talking but can never make out what they’re saying. What follows are the thoughts, memories and stories of those laid to rest in the unfarmable land that became part of Paulstadt’s cemetery thanks to a dubious deal between the mayor and the farmer, both now amongst its residents. Some of the dead remember their childhood, others the happiest day of their lives; some remember how they died, others who they loved. Slowly the story of the town emerges through their voices: the priest who burnt down the church with himself in it; the leisure centre, built on ground that couldn’t support it, that collapsed killing three of the town’s citizens; the florist who lay dead in her shop for weeks before being found. As in life, some of the dead have a great deal to say, others very little, and some are notable by their absence.
No one came to my hundred-and-fifth. Even I wasn’t fully there. I was dreaming everything by then
Seethaler brings the same understanding of the richness of everyday life to this novel that made A Whole Life so satisfying. Each voice is distinct, some suffused with longing others laced with humour – Sophie Breyer’s one-word contribution made me laugh out loud. Several are inconclusive or oblique, as if they’re unable to bear what comes next in their story. Some lives are cut poignantly short while one, my favourite, is one hundred and five years long. It ends with a memory of Richard Regnier whose name has cropped up throughout but whose voice remains unheard, the mystery of what happened to him unsolved. Regret, sorrow, love, happiness, revenge, dishonesty, loneliness, misunderstanding, greed – all human life is here so to speak. Another thoroughly enjoyable, skilfully wrought piece of fiction from Seethaler filled with compassion and wit, expertly translated by Charlotte Collins.
Picador: London 9781529008050 240 pages Hardback