Harvest is located in a remote valley in England ‘around Shakespeare’s time’ , the late Tudor period when the medieval commons were facing the first great wave of enclosures. We are not certain where the village is exactly, but what we do get to know in great detail is all its specificity – its daily life, its lanes and barns, its middens and its pillories, and above all its soils and seasons.
Reviewed by Robin Murray (19-6-14):
“The scientist Brian Goodwin, reflecting on the evolutionary functions of play, suggested that one of its functions is to introduce disorder into entropied order. In animals, including humans, play is a central part of the generative process. The chaos of play is followed by the emergence of a modified order.
Reading novels is one form of play – in the imagination. The English novelist Jim Crace talks about his writing in this way. He is fiercely political but his attempts to write political novels turned out to be dead on the page. Instead, provoked by reading Marquez, he found himself making things up, giving himself up to his imagination,. Marquez he thought did it too easily. His 17 year old slf thought his work no more than bourgeois fantasy. But then he found that this very kind of fabulation is what freed him up.
Crace’s novels are located in imagined pasts, futures and places – at the end of the stone age, two centuries in the future, in the Palestinian wilderness at the time of Jesus. They are all intentional displacements, but only – he insists – so that they can address contemporary issues freely, allusively, and with an unconstrained imagination. Crace, who grew up on a working class housing estate in North London, has socialism running through him in his deep veins. But he has found that he can only approach the great political issues of today in the refracted form of dislocated imaginative play.
All this is relevant to his latest novel about the commons and their enclosure. Harvest is located in a remote valley in England ‘around Shakespeare’s time’ , the late Tudor period when the medieval commons were facing the first great wave of enclosures. We are not certain where the village is exactly, but what we do get to know in great detail is all its specificity – its daily life, its lanes and barns, its middens and its pillories, and above all its soils and seasons. The land is largely farmed in common, rather than commonly distributed private plots, (as was the dominant form in the Russian mir) and the produce that is not retained by the lord of the manor, is distributed according to need.
The reader interested in the exact forms of ownership is intentionally diverted. It is not clear what the terms of ownership of the village are – merely that the lord of the manor, a widower living in the manor house, whose barns are used for storage, has rights which he somehow delegates to the 20 families of the village. What we are shown, however, is the character of communal life and its structures of feeling. There is an annual beating of the bounds of the village, when the children are made to eat mouthfuls of the grass as the fruit of the soil on which they all depend. There is the process of communal scything, the stooking, and the threshing. There are the arrangements for sharing out the tasks of removing the night soil to the village cess pit and so on.
Only the gleaning provides the chance for the villagers to gather their own grain directly, but according to strict Ostrom like rules on priority. There are other Ostrom elements including village assemblies, the annual raising of common issues of concern, and the public settlement of individual differences. Crace has not read Ostrom (nor would he want to – it would make these arrangements too specific). But what he does is to create an imagined community where Ostrom’s rules of success would comfortably sit (even if the customary rules were interpreted and enforced by the manor’s lord).
On my initial reading I thought this an idealized pictures of the commons, with its collaborative ploughing, sowing and reaping, its collective routines, its harvest celebrations and other rituals. Aside from each households geese, hens and pigs, it lacked the individual usage rights that characterized much medieval communal agriculture. But on second reading I see that our communal economist’s eyes are looking for too much specificity – it is the looseness that Crace wants to preserve, not historical accuracy, so that this example – in 16th century England – can stand in for commons everywhere.
There are, too, many aspects of Crace’s communal life which have a dark side. Three of its young men set fire to a large puffball to frighten the doves in the village barn, which burns it down, hay, grain and all. Some know the culprits but keep quiet, and instead the village collectively projects the deed onto three strangers (themselves exiles from a neighbouring process of enclosure) who have settled in a mud-and-reed hut nearby. The consequences of this unjust projection provide the narrative spine for the novel – and are one aspects of the tension, the light and shadow, that runs through much of Crace’s writing (racism being one of common themes). There are other downsides as well – inbreeding, a closure of perspectives, the limits of imagination beyond the winning of the day’s food and the night’s companionship.
Into all this steps the encloser. He is a cousin of the manor’s lord, who has inherited the rights via the lord’s dead wife. He comes with the ruthlessness of the soya barons of today (in Harvest’s case sheep) and with the language we know so well of ‘productivity’ and ‘progress’. We wait for the villagers (who outnumber the new master and his retinue by 10:1 and who are scandalized like the reader by the brutality of the new project and its rape driven process) to rise up against the intruders. That would have been the course of a rural Germinal, or those socialist realist novels of the last century. But instead of voice and action, the villagers choose exit, family by family, on foot and oxen cart, fleeing to join the growing pauperized class of late Elizabethan England. What is left is not a new beginning but an old destruction, a tabula rasa, which the new rural capitalism will map according to its calculus, with fences replacing forests and the common fields and with a shepherd and a priest in place of sixty commoners.
Interviewed about this book, Crace said that enclosures and displacements of this kind are taking place every minute, in the Amazon, in Indonesia, in the areas of peasant farming whose land is being appropriated by the agro industrialists. He insists he is an optimist in the face of these forces. This is not evident in Harvest. I suspect Crace would say that a shallow optimism cannot guide his writing. Rather the narrative has its own force, its own drive, through the palaces of the imagination. In a post modern novel we might be offered alternatives ways out. Crace, the storyteller, is concerned rather that we follow him into the ways in.”