On this day the night wears three liveries: What Was, What Is, What Is Yet To Be.
Fürstenfelde: a small village (“population: decreasing”), somewhere in Germany. The year: probably about now. The feast: a traditional celebration of St. Anne’s Day, featuring food, drink, singing, an auction, and the occasional burning. The night before the feast: a time of quiet anarchy. Anything could happen, and in Stanišić’s novel, anything does. Like a Shakespearean comedy, the book brings disparate characters together in peculiar situations; over the course of a single night, twelve hours at most, lives are revealed in miniature, destinies faced and changed, and yet history—and the village—marches inexorably on. In its combination of the fantastic, the menacing and the inexplicable, it reminded me of nothing so much as A Midsummer Night’s Dream filtered through the uncanny lens of Welcome to Night Vale.
Like both of these works, Before the Feast is an ensemble piece, although (more like Shakespeare) we end up invested in each of the many characters we meet. Frau Kranz is an eighty-nine-year old painter; Herr Schramm, a suicidal veteran who, every time he is reintroduced to us, comes with an entire potted history of his career; Anna, an eighteen-year-old orphaned girl who may or may not be burned at this year’s Feast; Lada, the local tough guy, and Silent Suzi, his tattooed, mute best friend; Johann, the sixteen-year-old apprentice bell ringer, and his mother Frau Schwermuth, who suffers from terrible depression and jealously guards the village archives. There are several chapters told through the eyes of a vixen looking futilely for food for her cubs. There are also, and increasingly as the book goes on, stories from local history: the archive is broken into on this night before the feast, and from that breach, no matter how much Frau Schwermuth might like to protect and suppress them, stories about the village’s past begin to leak out.
There are patterns to the stories. Most of them are to do with death: murder and then judicial murder, accidents and jealousies. A vixen features in several of them, as do girls called Anna. We can guess that a small village over many hundreds of years will experience similar situations over and over again; it’s not out of the ordinary that so many of the events recorded in the archives resonate with one another. But, put all together, it makes you aware of how powerful it is to know that you are in a place where death and life and stories have followed the same tracks for so long. Before the Feast is neither marketed nor written as a horror book, but it’s still, in this sense at least, deeply scary.
The fact is that many people were hanged from that oak tree over the centuries, and we sometimes feel so angry that we’d like to have the whole field covered with cement, not because we’re angry with the field and the oak tree, but because apart from Frau Schwermuth no one’s interested. There isn’t even a plaque about it anywhere.
Keeping track of regional and national history is difficult in a place that has experienced changes on a grand scale. Fürstenfelde has been part of the Empire, governed by Nazis, swallowed by the GDR, then ushered into the chilly light of capitalism at the end of the Cold War. 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”, is our link to the shifting political and cultural landscapes of the recent past, the twentieth century. His days in the army are remembered with a mixture of unsentimental boredom and inexplicable longing. Herr Schramm didn’t enjoy his military service, exactly, but when we meet him in the book, he doesn’t feel he has much left to live for. And yet in Fürstenfelde, though the narrating voice makes casual asides about the days of the war and of communism and of hunger, we get the distinct impression that not all that much has ever changed:
More people die than are born. We hear the old folk as they grow lonely and the young as they fail to make any plans. Or make plans to go away. In spring we lost the Number 419 bus. People say, give it another generation or so, and things won’t last here any longer. We believe they will. Somehow or other they always have. We’ve survived pestilence and war, epidemics and famine, life and death. Somehow or other things will go on.
Even young Johann Schwermuth, the teenage bellringer desperate to lose his virginity, is one of a long line of bellringers and apprentices stretching all the way back to the dawn of the village’s existence.
Given this long historical perspective, it makes sense that Stanišić chooses to write most of the time in the first person plural. I can only recall seeing this once before, in Jeffrey Eugenides’s novel The Virgin Suicides. In that book, the “we” pronoun represents the boys of the neighborhood, who long after the Lisbon sisters in a collective pubescent fashion; in Before the Feast, the “we” is the population of the village itself, though it doesn’t represent any of the specific people in it. Nor is it the land that speaks; “we” unites the villagers without making one of them a spokesperson. It’s the subconscious of this group of people, the collective awareness and shared experiences and beating heart of a small rural community that anyone who has lived in one will recognize immediately.
In one of the sections from the village’s history, Stanišić directly addresses the question of how this shared experience gets turned into memory and transferred down generations, so that eventually people who never lived through an event know it as a story:
Who writes the old stories? Who erects a memorial to fear? Who traces the furrows for sowing seed with a rake?
Who tells us what we ought to know?
Who tells us what we know?…
A fire comes and it’s all gone, all of it. Who writes the story of the fire? Who writes the old stories? Who takes that job on?
…Someone. Someone writes the stories. Someone has always written them.
There are characters who are lost in this book. Frau Schwermuth’s midnight wanderings, fueled by mental instability and chronic depression; Frau Kranz’s late-night attempts to paint a final picture; Herr Schramm’s vaguely suicidal impulses; Anna’s insomnia that drives her to lace her trainers on and run—none of them, you might think, have been particularly well served by Fürstenfelde’s stories, no matter how old and wise and pedigreed they are. I think Stanišić’s point is that people may have many centuries of history to draw upon, but it doesn’t make them any less individuals, who ultimately have only their own discretion to aid them. History can be used as a guide, but your past can’t—or at least shouldn’t—make decisions for you. The best you can do is to be canny about the lessons you learn from it.
Be heroic in keeping order. Know morals and manners so that you can change them (know your rights as well as your duty).
Be heroic with your memory by admitting honestly what has been done.
Be heroic and know that heroes cannot always be heroes; there are many other things to do.
Thanks very much to Tabitha at Pushkin Press for the review copy.