François Bon: L’enterrement [The Funeral]
This long story/short novel is set in a farming village in the Vendée region of France (where Bon comes from). It is called Champ-Saint-Père and really exists. The name is a corruption of Saint Pierre, i.e. Saint Peter rather than Holy Father. Bon later admitted that, when he wrote the novel, he had never visited the village (the implication that it was his home village was incorrect) and only did so later. He was not impressed. The unnamed narrator, who is from the village but has long since moved away, has returned for the funeral of his friend, Alain. The narrator had shared a flat with Alain. Alain made his living by taking boats left by holiday-makers in the West Indies, Egypt or elsewhere, back home. He said, with modern instrumentation, it was all very easy.
The narrator gives a fairly grim picture of the village, commenting that it was like passing through a place one knows on a train. He was last there five months previously, for the wedding of Alain’s sister, who is now visibly more than five months pregnant. Alain and his family were not particularly close. He never used his sister’s name but merely called her sis. (His mother called him Mule Head or Bad Seed.)
We do not know how Alain died but it soon seems that he might have killed himself. The mother tells the narrator not to answer any questions and there is a general atmosphere of people not knowing but gossiping about it.
The narrator is an observer. He observes the people and the place and comments on them. We follow his observations as he goes to the reception, the funeral, follows the cortège and looks around the village. He also recalls his last visit for Alain’s sister’s wedding.
The village has clearly changed. The school has gone, people now shop in the town and there are fewer shops, though he comments on the bank, the insurance company and the agricultural credit companies. Twice he mentions the arduous train journey to get there, with several changes, emphasising how remote the village is.
He talks to a few people. The father remains with his head bowed during the reception and acknowledges no-one but the mother talks to him more than once. He goes to visit the sister. In particular, he talks to the organist or, rather, the organist talks to him. He had played at the sister’s wedding and remembers the narrator. He is single and does not own a television so he was outside on the night before Alain’s death. He saw him wandering around in the field at night and thought it strange. He has not mentioned it to the parents, so as not to upset them further. He also complains that people never go out at night nowadays, preferring to watch television. The organist also tells the narrator about the sister’s disastrous wedding, with their car windscreen being smashed by a stone and both ending up with bad colds in Venice.
When the narrator had come for the wedding, Alain had shown him the cadaver tomb in the church painted by Gaston Chaissac. (This does not seem to exist in real life, though Chaissac was certainly from the Vendée region). The narrator finds it gruesome but it seems the only thing of interest in the village.
We follow the sequence of events chronologically, including the cortège through the town (where the narrator observes the shops and the war memorial, on which he would like to carve Alain’s name) and to the church, where many of the men stay outside during the service.
Overall, the narrator feels that he really does not belong here and is eager to leave, stopping only to say goodbye to Alain’s mother. But he tells his tale well. His story is slow but not ponderous, as we see the town and follow the ritual of the funeral through his eyes. It all ends with the mother saying goodbye to everyone. The father has disappeared.
First published 1992 by Gallimard
No English translation