Jaipur Literature Festival author Jim Crace’s Harvest fascinated me. The book never specifies its setting of time and place, but we can discern an English village around the time of the enclosure movement. (The enclosure movement in Tudor England divided lands held in common into privately owned plots and brought sheep to replace row crops and other livestock raised on the commons.) “Walter Thirsk” tells the story of what happens in his adopted village during the course of one week during harvest time. Walter is an astute and intelligent observer of village life, his insight enhanced by the fact that he’s an outsider, having come to the village as an adult. He’s known and served the local grandee for many years, but he lives in the village with the local folk. The narrator portrays a sense of a stable equilibrium of life in the village when the book opens, although not without a sense of foreboding. Then strangers appear on the edge of the village, someone sets the grandee’s dovecot on fire, and a new claimant to the land arrives who wants to bring sheep. This cluster of events begins to eat away at the ties that bind the village into a community.
This book might have been a novel of detection: crimes are committed, but Walther Thirsk is no William of Baskerville (The Name of the Rose). He is an intelligent but plain, common man. Walter’s narrative is that of a keen observer who attempts—sometimes successfully, sometimes not—to untangle mysteries and reduce wrongs, but his efforts have only limited success. Events and intentions are too great for him to manage. He’s forced into the role of observer even as he hopes to shape events as a participant.
I heard Crace speak a couple of times at JLF, and I recall that during the panel on the “historical novel” he said that Harvest doesn’t merit that that designation. He’s both right and wrong. Right in the sense that he never specifies the time and place nor does he reference any historical figures. But he nevertheless suggests a sense of village life that compels us back into a hazy past. Part of his success in doing so comes from his well-wrought prose, rich yet not pandering. He provides a sense of the sinews of village life and how they might be cut asunder, how a village reacts to loss, blame, and change. It’s quite a treat. I might also say it’s relevant.
The contemporary world continues to experience accelerated change, especially for smaller, agricultural communities. In many nations, such villages still exist (I think here especially of Ethiopia), but of course also in India. These villagers will experience sudden and dramatic change—economic, cultural, social, and (therefore) political—and change does not occur easily. Many of the problems become visible in the cities. We see slums and crime. We know about the culture of unattached males that roam the streets. In India, we’re especially aware of the culture of rape, the thuggery, and susceptibility to demagoguery that have arisen among these unattached village males transplanted into cities like Delhi. But even Iowa has experienced dramatic changes with economic decline. Although separated by centuries from Crace’s imaginary village, one can appreciate the sense of disorder and loss that must occur. These ongoing events and processes make me think that Crace’s book is more than a journey into the past. It also serves as an appreciation of what still happens in the world around us.