‘Field Study’ by Rachel Seiffert

At the center of ‘Field Study’ is Martin, a graduate student researching water pollution in a neighbouring country. As he takes samples from a river, he sees a young woman and her eleven-year-old son bathing. Later, at the restaurant in his guesthouse, he recognizes the woman as his waitress. Her son is doing his homework at the bar. He strikes up a friendship with them, the boy, Jacek, translating between Martin and the mother, Ewa. The initial results show high levels of a dangerous chemical, and Martin warns the pair not to swim in the river anymore. On the last night of the field study, Ewa invites Martin for dinner. Jacek translates until the wine loosens Martin and Ewa’s tongues; it gets late; the boy falls asleep at the table. Martin leans forward to kiss Ewa, but she gently but firmly rejects him. The next morning, the final results come in from the lab back home. The new data contradicts the old: the chemical’s concentration is normal. Martin thinks about telling Ewa and Jacek it’s ok to swim again, but then he doesn’t. The road home follows the river; soon he is at the border. “His chest it tight with shame, but the border guard is waving him through now, and he is driving on again.”

Seiffert never names her countries—presumably Germany and the Czech Republic or Poland—and I like asking students to think about the effect of this decision. Borders in this story are at once porous, meaningless (they can’t stop pollution) and impermeable, effective (especially so for those who come from poorer parts of the world). ‘Field Study’ isn’t critical of science per se, but it rejects the belief that subjects can be kept rigorously separated from objects. In that sense, it is much more at ease with uncertainty (with mix and muddle) than its protagonist. I love teaching this story, because its straightforward syntax and “relatable” subject matter (they’re always fascinated by the scene of rejection) draw even recalcitrant students in, making them open to seeing how much there is to what appears a simple tale.

First published in Granta 81: Best of Young British Novelists 3, April 14 2003Collected in Field Study, Pantheon 2004