In anticipation of Philippe Claudel’s appearance at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in a few weeks, I have been reading his latest novel, Brodeck’s Report. Although I have read one of his earlier books, Grey Souls, it was the overwhelmingly positive response to Brodeck’s Report (Allan Massie thought it “magnificent” and compared it favourably to Kafka; Helen Brown described it as “a modern masterpiece”) when it was published earlier this year that led me to place Claudel on the shortlist of authors that I intended to see. In this instance, I can only agree with their praise: I am certain that this will be one of the best novels I read this year.
The novel is set in the aftermath of the Second World War in an isolated village on the border region between France and Germany – at least, so we can assume. Throughout Claudel is deliberately vague when it comes to both geography and history. This creates a tension between Brodeck’s desire to record the facts and the fable-like quality of much of the narrative. This tension allows the reader to see the novel both as a historical record and a symbolic representation of human evil, making its bleak message difficult to dismiss.
The novel begins with a murder: a visitor to the village, known as the Anderer, or the Other, is stabbed to death by a group of the village’s most important men. (Claudel’s use of dialect phrases is another technique which gives the novel a mythic quality). Brodeck, who is some kind of government official, is asked to write a report on the incident by the mayor, Orschwir, one of those involved in the killing. The implication is clear – the report should vindicate the killers. As Brodeck writes his report, he also writes an alternative version, the novel we are reading, which he keeps hidden. Not only does this reveal the events leading up to the Anderer’s death, but it also provides us with a biography of Brodeck. Both these stories are told in a fragmented way, event following event more by association than by chronology. Giving the human cruelty involved in most of what we learn, this creates the impression that we are surrounded on all sides by evil as we are assailed by examples form all directions of the narrative.
Brodeck’s origins are in violence. His earliest memory is of “standing outside a house in ruins from which a little smoke was rising.” He is rescued by an old woman, Fedorine, and brought to the village where he now lives, one of a few acts of kindness in the novel. He grows up there, and goes to study in a city in Germany where he meets his wife, Emelia. He returns to the village after rioting in the city, which seems to be directed at the Jews or Fremder (foreigners). It is implied hat Brodeck may be Jewish by descent, both at this point and later when during the war when he is given up by the village to occupying soldiers and sent to a concentration camp. So certain are they that he will never return that his named is carved on a monument in the village, and only ever partially erased – suggesting that some part of him has been killed during these years. He survives by submitting to his fate and imitating a dog for the amusement of the guards.
At the same time as this story is being told, we learn of the arrival of the mysterious Anderer, whose appearance in the village is never explained. He spends most of his time observing, which the villagers do not like because they are worried he will see them truthfully, with all their faults. This is emphasised when he invites them to an exhibition of his drawings. In inspecting his own portrait Brodeck comments:
“The drawing was an opaque mirror that threw back into my face all I had been and all that I was.”
His landscapes also seem to reveal hidden truths, crimes that have been committed, or will be committed. (This is a rare occasion where the novel verges on the supernatural, except, of course, that Brodeck may simply reading into the drawings what he already knows. The Anderer can, however, be seen as both a Devil figure and a Christ figure). Ultimately, the Anderer is killed not to prevent the him from revealing the villagers’ guilt to outside authorities, but because he has shown the villagers themselves what they truly are.
As I have said, this is a very bleak novel. Brodeck describes his time in the concentration camp as the Kazerskwir:
“Those were two years of total darkness. I look upon that time as a void in my life – very black and very deep – and therefore I call it the Kazerskwir, the crater. Often, at night, I still venture out onto its rim.”
The novel presents life itself as the rim of a Kazerskwir. The daily life of the village seems suspended above a black void of inhumanity which individuals are only too quick to plunge into. More than once Brodeck sees someone he knows, a friend, involved in cruelty: in the rioting, in the camp, in the village – and he, too, feels the guilt of his own cruel act in the train on the way to the camp. The only way to survive is to not look down. However, this is not a nihilistic novel. It contains some small acts of kindness which stand out amid the cruelty, and Brodeck’s report itself, his determination to look into the crater, is a victory of some kind.