Archive for July, 2009

Brodeck’s Report

July 30, 2009

brodeck's report

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.

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The Informers

July 27, 2009

informers

Recently I seem to have read a number of novels which explore the relationship between Nazi Germany and Latin America, from Jenny Erpenbeck’s outstanding The Book of Words to the less cerebral A Quiet Flame by Philip Kerr. The Columbian writer, Juan Gabriel Vasquez’s, first novel, The Informers, tackles similar territory with both a narrative and structure that focuses on stripping back, layer after layer, towards the truth.

The truth which the narrator, Gabriel Santoro, is searching for relates to his father’s life. The novel begins by outlining a conflict between them – the cause of that conflict being Gabriel’s decision to write about the life of a family friend, Sara Guterman, a Jewish woman who escaped from Germany to Columbia in 1938. His father (also called Gabriel) objects to this to the point where he writes a savage review, even though his expertise is in the area of oratory, on which he lectures, and he would not normally lower himself to print. This rift only begins to be healed when the father requires heart surgery, and Gabriel and Sara help him recuperate. It is, however, only after his father’s death in a car accident (which may not have been an accident but suicide) that the secret his father has been hiding from is revealed: that he falsely informed on Konrad Deresser, his friend’s father, during war-time when Nazi sympathisers in Columbia were blacklisted. Deresser lost his business and his family and never recovered, later committing suicide. This revelation is made publicly by his lover, Angelina, ruining Gabriel senior’s posthumous reputation.

As one of the Bogota 39, Vasquez represents a new generation of South American writers, and in style and structure this novel can be seen as almost anti-magic realist. The story is presented in the format of a documentary, and the characters are delivered to us in a series of autobiographical segments, directed towards the reader in written or spoken format. As well as the first person narrative there are extracts from the taped conversations with Sara, and a number of lengthy conversations with other characters like Angelina and Enrique, Deresser’s son, which allow them to tell their stories. That this is a novel that is concerned with the possibility of recreating a life can be seen from the inclusion of the word “life” in the heading of each section apart from the Postscript. The Postscript is another device used by the author to create a documentary feel: it purports to be written in 1995, a year after the book “The Informers” was published. (The Informers was published in 2004). This is in keeping with the way that the novel is structured as an ongoing investigation – we only know what Gabriel knows at that time, not at the time he is writing about it. The most striking example of this is when he reads Deresser’s letters. They are in a folder in reverse order, i.e. the last one first, and this is how they are reproduced in the novel. (I couldn’t help it – I read them chronologically).

Clearly this is a novel about betrayal. It is Gabriel’s father’s betrayal that is the secret that he hides from his son. He feels betrayed by his son when he writes about Sara, revisiting a past he wishes to stay buried – and, in turn, betrays him with his criticism of the book. Angelina betrays her lover by revealing his secret – she informs on him – but she does so because he abandoned her, and she also felt betrayed. It is also a novel about the impossibility of knowing someone. Perhaps Gabriel’s father is also angered by his book because it suggests he feels he can sum up someone’s life in print, that he can understand someone without even having lived through the same times as them. In order to keep his secret, Gabriel’s father has falsified more than one aspect of his life: his ability to speak German, the way in which he lost the fingers of his right hand. His son has not really known him at all. Vasquez’s style emphasises this theme by presenting characters largely in their own words. This may seem superficially a path to greater insight, but it allows us few other clues to their lives beyond what they tell us. By the end of the novel, for example, we know remarkably little about the narrator beyond what relates to his relationship with his father and his attempts to understand him.

There also seems to be an interesting conflict between written and spoken language in the novel. As already mentioned, Gabriel’s father lectures on oratory, while Gabriel is a writer. While his father speaks, Gabriel listens, and it is this that leads him to the truth. His father’s ability to talk well is ultimately seen as a method of deception:

“My father spoke about reconstruction and morals and perseverance, and he did so without blushing, because he focused less on what he said than on the device he used to say it.”

This is an accomplished first novel, stylistically astute, and engaging both as a historical study and as the portrayal of a father-son relationship.

The Little Stranger

July 24, 2009

little stranger

The Little Stranger is Sarah Waters’ fifth novel, but the first I have read. The genre (a ghost story set in a decaying country house) and the historical setting (post-war Britain) appealed, as did Waters’ reputation as a good story-teller. In all these aspects the novel doesn’t disappoint: Waters’ faithful recreation of the old fashioned, atmospheric tale of a haunted house and her convincing portrayal of the beginning of social change in the years after the Second World War are two of the novel’s successes.

Unlike many stories which mix the supposedly supernatural with madness (The Tell-Tale Heart, Confessions of a Justified Sinner), The Little Stranger is narrated by its most rational character, Dr. Faraday, who rejects throughout any explanation for the strange goings-on at Hundreds Hall that is not strictly scientific. Faraday is a doctor from a humble background, a symbol of the weakening of class barriers. He is linked to the Hall from the beginning as his mother once worked their as a servant, and the novel opens with his memory of visiting the Hall for an Empire Day fete as a child where his mother’s previous position allows him brief access to the inside of the house: “The thrill of it was astonishing.” In his desire to possess something of the place he breaks of a plaster acorn form a wall decoration, something echoed throughout the novel in the physical decline of the house, and perhaps also in his relationship with Caroline.

When he next visits the Hall, it is as a doctor to treat the young servant, Betty, and it is then he first makes the acquaintance of Mrs. Ayres, and her children, Caroline and Roderick. He is “appalled” at the house’s deterioration, and it is clear that the family are struggling with its upkeep, an effort that falls largely on Roderick’s shoulders and is best represented by his “desk with a mess of papers on it”. Faraday’s friendship with the family grows when he offers to treat Roderick’s wounded leg and this culminates in his invitation to a social gathering they decide to hold to welcome the wealthy Baker-Hydes, who have bought a neighbouring country house, into the county, an event that turns out to be a final, futile effort to recreate the grand events of the past. Faraday is clearly an outsider – when one of the guests recognises him she says: “No-one’s unwell, I hope?” The assumption is that he is there in a professional capacity. His professional skills are soon called upon, however, as the family dog, Gyp, savagely bites the Baker-Hydes’ daughter. The dog’s subsequent death is the first in the slow emptying of the house.

Thereafter the novel follows a pattern of inexplicable events and growing madness. When Roderick confesses to Faraday that he saw objects moving of their own volition on the night of the party and feels his room to be haunted, Faraday assumes that the strain of running the estate is too much for him and has him committed. (Roderick already has a history of mental illness. When Mrs. Ayres has an episode where she is locked in the nursery while alone in the house, he worries for her sanity, but she commits suicide before he can have her similarly placed in care. By this point he and Caroline are engaged, and when she calls off the engagement and tells him she plans to leave the Hall, he is concerned about her state of mind, something that seems to be justified when she falls to her death shortly after. By the final death we are dangerously near those haunted house horror flicks where a group of unsuspecting victims find themselves taking refuge from a storm only to die one by one; however here the deaths are not of strangers to the house and are thematically relevant.

As in all ghost stories, there is a stand-out suspect when it comes to identifying the ghost: Mrs. Ayres’ dead daughter Susan. When writing appears on the walls it seems to spell her name, and Mrs. Ayres is convinced she hears her voice. However, Caroline feels that the problem is not a ghost but a poltergeist, and clearly the leading candidate for this is Faraday himself. Throughout the novel, it becomes increasingly obvious hat he is more attached to the Hall than the family: when Caroline jilts him, he is more shocked at her decision to leave than to call off the wedding. The first instances of anything strange occur on the night of the party, when Faraday is first accepted into the Hall as an equal, but at the same time is under the strain of feeling an outsider. The attack on Mrs. Ayres comes after she finds out about Faraday and Caroline’s engagement. And, of course, the final death occurs after Caroline has decided to give up both Faraday and the Hall. Her final word – “You!” – overheard by Betty, is as likely to refer to Faraday as anyone else. There is perhaps a clue in the novel’s final lines:

“If Hundreds Hall is haunted, however, its ghost doesn’t show itself to me. For I’ll turn and am disappointed – realising that what I am looking at is only a cracked window-pane, and that the face gazing distorted from it, baffled and longing, is my own.”

He is also the only character in the Hall who is a stranger. When Gyp barks at him on his first appearance, Caroline says, “He thinks every stranger’s come to cut our throats and make off with the family silver.” Faraday’s emotional torment would, of course, be disguised by his narration, making what seems like the most reliable of narrator’s, unreliable. Thematically, the poltergeist activity represents the tensions created by the violent shift in class sensibilities at the time, a visceral presentation of the often neglected violence of this change. Waters has chosen her genre wisely. It is not a ghost story, in which the house is haunted by the past, but one in which the supernatural activity is created by the social change of the swiftly arriving future – of which Faraday is possibly more afraid than the Ayres. As Caroline says, commenting on the council houses being constructed on their land: “Like the sounds of a battle.”

This is an entertaining, if deliberately old-fashioned, tale, but also a sympathetic portrayal of a redundant class unable to save itself.