Book Review

Mathias Enard in Rabelais’ Footsteps

In his latest book, the author of Compass, winner of the 2015 Prix Goncourt, depicts a Parisian ethnologist’s exploration of the Marais Poitevin region. The Annual Banquet of the Gravediggers’ Guild, recently translated into English, is a mouthwatering, multi-layered literary journey through death and good food.
© Marc Melki

You don’t always have to go to the ends of the earth to experience otherness. That’s what David Marzon, an apprentice ethnologist from Paris, discovers when he chooses to study the marshland around the city of Niort in Western France. Armed with a notebook, he settles into his new home living with Mathilde and Gary, a couple of farmers, and starts exploring the countryside on a moped named Jolly Jumper, a nod to cowboy Lucky Luke’s horse. From beaver pâté to the red worms that seem to be colonizing his bathroom, everything about this place and its endless legends baffles him. At the Café-Pêche, the local watering hole where it’s best to drink something stronger than Orangina, he meets some of the village’s main characters: Mayor Martial, an undertaker who looks just like Gargantua’s father, Grandgousier; Thomas, who owns the café; and Lucie, a beautiful truck farmer who introduces him to the joys of vegetable growing. The scientific hypothesis put forward by the vain, clumsy ethnologist soon comes face-to-face with real-life realities and the power of stories. The tale culminates in a delightful banquet where the gravediggers gather once a year, united by their love of good food and linguistic acrobatics.

Usually focused on the Mediterranean, Mathias Enard has turned his back on his favorite landscapes and delved deep into rural France, not far from the place that supposedly inspired François Rabelais’ fictional Abbey of Thélème. The book reconnects with the author’s childhood region in a parody of ethnographic writing, chansons de geste, and poems recited in the local Saintongeais dialect. Serving up a medley of characters and stories, The Annual Banquet of the Gravediggers’ Guild combines erudition, humor, narrative power, and musings on history across several layers. Thrown into the turning wheel of time, certain characters are reincarnated as wild boars or red foxes in a cycle that challenges the relationship between humans and other living beings. A delightful, invigorating novel that could almost make you love snail soup.

The Annual Banquet of the Gravediggers’ Guild by Mathias Enard, translated from French by Frank Wynne, New Directions, 2023. 432 pages, 19.95 dollars.

Article published in the January 2024 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.