Archive for the ‘Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 2010’ Category

The Blind Side of the Heart

May 14, 2010

As with The Kindly Ones, Julia Franck’s The Blind Side of the Heart explores the German experience of war during the twentieth century. Here, however, the focus is on the civilian population, and women in particular. Franck also takes a longer view, beginning with the First World War and moving through the inter-war years to beyond the Second.

The Prologue is really an epilogue, set after the Second World War has ended, as Peter and his mother seek to escape from a Russian occupied sector of Germany. The threat faced by women from men, a reoccurring theme of the novel, is already in evidence as Peter returns home to his apartment to find two soldiers emerging:

“They were clapping each other on the back in high good humour.”

A third soldier is sitting naked on the floor sobbing. Our disassociation from his mother, Helene’s, experience at this point is not simply the use of a child’s viewpoint to create irony. It is clear that Helene herself is distant from her own life. Her coldness towards Peter is shown by her refusal to take his hand:

“He reached for her hand. She shook his off and went ahead of him.”

And later:

“Mother, he repeated, taking her hand again…Next moment the train jerked… and his mother held tight with one hand to the baggage rack and with the other to the door frame for the rest of the journey, while Peter clung to her coat without her noticing or being able to prevent him.”

However, this does not prepare us for her actions when she leaves Peter waiting for her at a station and does not return. The rest of the novel is, to some extent, an attempt to explain this.

Helene’s childhood, we discover, was not an easy one. Her Jewish mother largely ignored her, and never recovered from her father’s decision to fight in the First World War. When he returns, severely wounded, she refuses to even see him, and it is Helene and her older sister Martha, who nurse him until he dies. When they get the chance to move to Berlin and live with a rich aunt they take it, abandoning their mother to only the occasional mention thereafter. Franck portrays Berlin as a place of frantic hedonism in the 1920s and early 30s. Martha becomes addicted to morphine and pursues a lesbian affair with a married woman whom she has followed to the city. Helene, nine years younger and more serious, doesn’t fit in. Eventually she meets a young man, Carl, who falls in love with her, but he dies before they can marry and at this point she seems to close down emotionally:

“Helene sat down again and went on not waiting for anything. Days passed.”

Her marriage to Wilhelm is something she drifts into, partly influence by his provision of papers proving she is pure German. When he discovers she is not a virgin, however, his attitude towards her changes completely, and believably, and he is soon estranged for her, building roads for the new Nazi regime.

The novel has many excellent scenes, for example when Helene goes to visit Carl’s parents after his death, or the night of her marriage to Wilhelm. Its central irony is the similarities between Helene and her mother. Where her mother loses her husband to war, Helen’s loses the man she loves to an accident: in both instances it is their sense of powerlessness that distresses them. Her mother’s waiting for her husband’s return is echoed in the fact that Helene is waiting for Carl on the day he dies. Both are also affected by their Jewishness: Helene because she is threatened by Wilhelm, her mother because she is regarded as an eccentric in her village. Finally, both reject their children.

The novel’s final scenes are also ironic. When Helene reappears year later to visit Peter, he hides in the barn and refuses to see her. This echoes an earlier scene when they are mushroom picking and Helen hides from her son:

“The boy sat down and wept…. If she came out of the bushes now, just a few metres away, he would know she had been watching him and had hidden on purpose.”

In both cases, however, it is Helene who seems ultimately powerless, and it is her powerlessness that is central to the novel. Her only affirmative actions are her rejection of her mother and then her son. The powerlessness is sometimes sexual:

“He thrust his prick into her, regular thrust after regular thrust, like a hammer driving a nail into the wall.”

More often, however, it is related to her inability to control her own fate.

The Blind Side of the Heart probably tries to do too much, particularly in dealing with so many years of German history. Characters also have a tendency to fade away: the mother, Martha, and even Helene herself (we never find out where she goes when she leaves Peter or why she comes back). Having said that, it contains many memorable scenes and tackles the issues of those years from a new and interesting angle.

The Kindly Ones

May 10, 2010

At least once a year a novel is paraded before us as a literary masterpiece, something that will make enough of a splash to leave us watching the ripples for many years to come. Generally, this novel will be American, but occasionally it will originate from elsewhere; almost always it will be at least 500 pages long, even though experience tells us that great literature tends not be measured using scales. The Kindly Ones is one such novel – I can, in fact, remember reading about it before it was translated into English. By that time it had already picked up awards in France, and it did indeed sound intriguing. Written by an expatriate American in French, it apparently told the story of the Second World War from the point of view of an unrepentant Nazi.

This central character is Max Aue. He begins the narrative with a defence of his actions:

“I think I am allowed to conclude, as a fact established by modern history, that everyone, or nearly everyone, in a given set of circumstances, does what he is told to do; and, pardon me, there’s not much chance that you’re the exception, any more than I was.”

However, almost 1,000 pages later and it’s still not clear whether Littell intends this ironically or whether it is, in fact, the novel’s central message. One problem is that Aue is about as far from an everyman character as you are likely to get. He also says in his defence that he has “loved a woman”, but he is referring to his sister. When their incestuous relationship is discovered by their mother (the father has long since disappeared), and they are separated, he refuses to sleep with other women, only with men so that he can feel what she feels. By the novel’s end he is famously pleasuring himself on the branch of a tree. Clearly (or perhaps that should be, hopefully) Littell is using this metaphorically to tell us something about Nazi psychology. There are certainly occasions when the similarities between the Jews and the Nazis, and the Bolsheviks and the Nazis are drawn. A captured Russian Commissar discusses this with Aue at length:

“In the end our two systems aren’t so different. In principle at least.”

However, it does make it unlikely that the reader will be thinking, ‘that could be me…’

Despite this, the novel is very effective in places at conveying the cruelty and the insanity of the Nazi’s attitude towards the Jewish people through its point of view. Aue’s early involvement in Eastern Europe allows us to see the practical problems encountered when attempting to shoot large numbers of unarmed civilians:

“…the method imposed by von Reichenau, with just two guns per condemned man, had its disadvantages: if you wanted to be sure of your shot you had to aim at the head rather than the chest, which caused spattering, the men got blood and brains in their faces, they were complaining.”

This approach, if anything, intensifies the horror. Later, as the Germans face defeat in Russia, time is wasted pointlessly trying to decide if a particular tribe are of Jewish race or if they simply follow the Jewish religion. As the war nears its end, Aue finds himself involved in an ironic battle to keep those in work camps strong and healthy enough to work. Again, the way in which this is presented simply as a practical problem gives us an insight into the psychology of dictatorship. Even as German troops starve in Stalingrad, their starvation is being studied.

Littell is also good on the way in which Aue and others are affected by what they witness and take part in. Aue is quickly afflicted by vomiting, something he still suffers from years after the war. Other officers go mad, and it is likely Aue does too. While in Stalingrad he survives a bullet through the head and later murders his mother and step father, though apparently his actions leave no memory. From this point on the narrative is less reliable, including Aue’s amusing but increasingly unlikely shadowing by two policemen determined to convict him of the killings.

Some scenes are both moving and memorable. The starving, almost feral soldiers of Stalingrad, and the moment where his friend Thomas, scoops his intestines back onto his stomach after being wounded; the forced march from the concentration camp; and the final moments in a ruined Berlin. Others, however, are less involving, particularly the time spent in his mother’s house where he apparently loses his mind and there is a tiresome (for Aue and the reader) amount of masturbation. The novel is too long, too crammed with research, and Aue is ultimately just too unusual to carry it. Not a masterpiece then, but not entirely a failure either.

Your Face Tomorrow 3: Poison, Shadow and Farewell

April 26, 2010

The publication of Your Face Tomorrow in three volumes seems, in retrospect, rather arbitrary; the seven sections, indicated by the sub-titles are more indicative of the structure. Each volume has contained one central act of violence and the third is no exception, the only difference being that, on this occasion, the violence is perpetrated by the central character and narrator, Jacques Deza. Deza (if you’re not acquainted with the previous volumes) is a Spaniard working in London for a “mysterious intelligence agency run by Bertram Tupra” (these were the words I was going to use, only to find them on the jacket…) that specialises in ‘reading’ people. The novel’s title (as with many of Marias’) comes from Shakespeare (Henry V), carrying with it connotations of betrayal, and of the difficulty of foreseeing what an individual will be like in the future. In this volume there is a strong sense that Deza himself has been unable to predict his own development.

Volume 2 ended with Tupra savagely attacking a man with a sword, threatening to kill him a number of times. This attack was witnessed by Deza and, at the beginning of this volume he is still discussing this with Tupra:

“I was sure that sooner or later he would ask me that question again: ‘Why can’t one do that? Why can’t one, according to you, go around beating people up and killing them?’ And I still had no answers that would convince him, I had to keep thinking about something we never think about because we take it as universally agreed, as immutable and normal and right.”

As throughout the series, the action is limited but the philosophising around the action is extensive. Marias writes in an extremely digressive style, reflected both in the lengthy conversations in the novel and in the first person narrative. Questions of morality abound, as when Deza sleeps with a young colleague shortly after she has asked him for a favour. Even the act itself is a form of deception:

“…she just let me, she didn’t participate, if one can say that or if that’s possible, at any rate, we didn’t speak, there was no indication on either side that what was happening was happening, how can I put it, we pretended to pretend to be asleep…”

The above extract (only a part of the sentence) gives a good indication of the style, the constant rephrasing in search of the most accurate expression of the idea.

The central incident in this volume, however, occurs when Deza returns home to Madrid to see his children and his wife, from whom he is separated. When he discovers that she is seeing someone else, and suspects that that person may have been violent towards her, he has to decide whether to take action or not. The implication is that his actions now may not be the same as before he met Tupra, particularly as he asks Tupra for advice:

“And you’re asking me what you should do? Or what is it you’re asking? What I would do in your place? Well, you know perfectly well by now, Jack, what I would do.”

Needless to say, a confrontation with the man in question occurs, and you might even argue that Deza changes in the course of that meeting:

“What face am I wearing now?…It’s the face of all those men and rather fewer women who have held someone else’s life in their hands and it could, from one moment to the next, come to resemble the face of those who chose to take that life.”

Marias, however, is not simply interested in the uses of fear and violence, but in the consequences. He does not end the novel with the aftermath of this event, but adds as a coda a wartime story from an old lecturer of Deza’s, Charles Wheeler. Wheeler tells him of his wife’s suicide, the result of a wartime betrayal she could not forgive herself for. His conclusion is that:

“…you can live with what has happened to you, with what you came here to talk to me about, because, unlike her, you find it hard to believe that you were responsible.”

In Marias’ work all moral concepts (in this case, guilt) become fluid – just as in war, a topic he frequently returns to throughout the sequence.

These three novels surely establish Marias as a major European writer. If you are at all interested in contemporary literature, you should make time for them.

Independent Foreign Fiction Prize shortlist

April 20, 2010

The shortlist for the prize was announced last Friday, as follows:

Brodeck’s Report by Philippe Claudel
The Blind Side of the Heart by Julia Franck
Fists by Pietro Grossi
Broken Glass by Alain Mabanckou
The Dark side of Love by Rafi Schami
Chowringee by Sankar

I should be pleased as I’ve read three of the six books – however, I’ve since read Your Face Tomorrow 3 and I’m now in the middle of The Kindly Ones, neither of which made the shortlist depite being the two most high profle novels on the longlist. This is not entirely surprising as the prize has tended to ignore established authors (or novels) and focus on writers who have not enjoyed the same amount of translation or attention.

Out of sheer bloody-mindedness, I will, of course, continue through the longlist as planned, no doubt finishing long after the winner is announced…


April 9, 2010

Yalo is Elias Khoury’s tenth novel, though not all of his previous work has been translated into English. You don’t have to look too deeply to see the reasons for this. A Lebanese author, he writes about the complex history and troubles of a part of the world that many of us might not want to be reminded of outside of news broadcasts. Equally, his style could not be described as reader friendly, relying on interior monologue and other initially narrow narrative viewpoints. Yalo tells the story of a young man, Daniel, whose complicated upbringing leads to involvement in the civil war in Beirut, desertion to France, and finally arrest and interrogation, accused of robbery and rape. The story, however, is not told chronologically – Daniel – or Yalo – is already under interrogation when the novel begins. It is also told entirely from Yalo’s point of view, generally in third person, but interspersed with first person confessions that Yalo is made to write, and then rewrite, in the course of his interrogation. From this initially confusing and uncompromising approach, however, emerges a powerful portrait of a troubled young man who struggles to understand the world around him.

At the heart of the novel lies Yalo’s love for Shireen, the woman who has accused him of rape. He meets her as a result of lying in wait in a secluded spot, armed with a Kalashnikov, for lovers in their cars, with the intention of robbing them, and perhaps raping the women. He claims that this began by chance:

“Then he put his hand into his pocket and gave me a handful of dollars and Lebanese lira. I hadn’t planned to rob him. I hadn’t a plan at all. I’d only wanted to watch.”

With Shireen, however, it is different:

“But I confess before God and before you that I used to rape women, because you call it rape, and because after I became enamoured of Shireen I discovered that it was rape compared with the beautiful, fantastic sex a person can have with the woman he loves.”

The phrase “you call it rape” reveals that we cannot trust Yalo to know if it is rape or not. It is also clear that he stalked her:

“Yes. I used to wait at her flat. The when she came out, I’d follow her to work and wait. Then I’d follow her back home.”

On the other hand, Shireen claims to have been there with her fiancé the night they met, whereas Yalo says it was another man, a doctor who performed an abortion on her, something he has no reason to lie about. Shireen also meets him a number of times after that night. Is this simply out of fear? Questions like these mean that our sympathies for Yalo tend to fluctuate as the narrative progresses.

The interrogation itself gives us reason to sympathise with him. Brutal throughout, it includes placing the lower half of his body, naked, in a sack with a cat and then beating the cat, and also forcing him to sit on a Coke bottle. It also becomes clear that they not only want him to confess to the rape, but to other crimes he has not committed:

“Do you really think we’re stupid enough to believe that it’s just about playing the peeping tom and doing your dirty business? We want all the information about the network that’s been planting bombs and wreaking havoc around the country.”

Despite his crimes, Yalo often appear the victim, not simply of his interrogators, but of chance. Even his background is a matter of chance: his grandfather, who raises him with his mother, was born a Syrian Christian, but brought up by a Muslim Kurd, only to return, later, to his roots. Yalo, though raised a Syrian, speaks Arabic. In this way Khoury dramatises the complex histories and relationships of the area. Yalo’s current job as a night watchman is also a matter of chance as he met his employer in Paris, after being abandoned there by the fellow soldier he had stolen money and deserted with. It is perhaps the fact that, as his life unfolds before us, we realise that meeting Shireen is the first time that he has experienced love, which makes his story so affecting. However sympathetic we feel towards him by the end, though, Khoury has undoubtedly created a complex, three dimensional character who resists our judgement.

Can it win? This is a very fine novel, and Khoury is exactly the kind of writer the Prize is designed to promote. It should make the short list at least.


April 5, 2010

Fists is a collection of three short stories by the Italian writer, Pietro Grossi. His admiration for Hemingway is referred to more than once on the jacket, and can be seen clearly in the first two stories, both of which are concerned with growing up and what it means to be a man. Even their titles, ‘Boxing’ and ‘Horses’, seem to come from a different time, and there is little in them to suggest Italy or the 21st century.

‘Boxing’ is narrated by a young man who describes himself as:

“…the perfect son – studious, nerdy, conventional, obedient, who went to bed early and who, if you asked, even said his prayers before going to sleep. But he didn’t want to play the piano.”

In fact, the only way he will agree to play the piano is if his mother lets him box. A battle of wills ensues which he eventually wins, albeit having been forbidden from ever boxing competitively. He turns out to be a skilful boxer, nicknamed the Dancer as a result of the speed and grace of his movement in the ring:

“I was kind of a legend….It was said that I was the best, the strongest, and that I didn’t fight because I knew I’d already won.”

All this changes when he sees the Goat, a fighter diametrically opposed in style. Where he is thought unbeatable, the Goat is unbeaten, and for the first time he feels the need to know whether he can beat someone. Grossi’s description of the fight is a tour de force and the centre piece of the story. Victory is not clear cut and it is this that gives that story its resolution, with Grossi indicting his theme in the final sentence:

“I had the feeling this was Man’s business, and I wasn’t used to it.”

‘Horses’ too is about the trials and obligations of being a man, and might remind you of Cormac McCarthy as well as Hemingway. It is about two brothers, Daniel and Natan, who are given horses by their father to teach them about responsibility. In order to train the horses they must work for Old Pancia, the local horse dealer, in return for his expertise. Whereas Natan uses his horse to escape to the freedom of the nearest town, Daniel remains with Pancia, learning all he can, and eventually buying a sick horse and nursing her back to health. Unfortunately the man he bought the horse from feels cheated and takes his revenge. What is important is Daniel’s reaction to this. When he returns home for rifle, his father

“…wondered if he ought to do something, or stop Daniel from doing something, but he had a kind of feeling that his son had understood what he was thinking. Then it struck him that it had been a while now since, without saying anything, each of them had chosen to live his own life, and that it was pointless to do anything.”

Key to the story is Daniel’s decision to deal with this himself; and in particular, without the support of his brother, whom he later tells, “It’s not your business.”

The third story, ‘The Monkey’, seems more modern from the moment a phone rings in the very first sentence (although we soon discover it is a landline, and that the main character, Nico, does not possess a mobile). The call is from Maria, the sister of an old friend, Piero. She tells him that Piero has started “acting like a monkey,” and when we meet him later, we find that this is exactly the case:

“He was naked, crouching beside the bed, playing with a little pile of pistachio shells, just like a monkey.”

Nico and Piero’s meeting takes up only a page of the story, but in the course of it he remembers an earlier phone call, and there are indications that Piero might be in love with Nico. Similarly, Nico was once attracted to Maria:

“Nico had immediately fallen in love with her, and for years Maria had been his erotic fantasy, the inaccessible almost mystical creature everyone encounters sometime during their adolescence.”

Indeed, Nico’s visit to Piero is partly predicated on meeting Maria again, but the difference between Nico and Piero is that Nico seems more resigned to letting his dreams go, as can be seen from his relationship with his present girlfriend. ‘The Monkey’ is not as neat as the other two stories, but in some ways that makes it the most interesting.

Can it win? It’s difficult for short stories to compete against novels, so it’s unlikely. However, all three stories have something to recommend them, and this may well make the short list.

Broken Glass

April 2, 2010

Alain Mabanckou’s Broken Glass does not give us what we might expect from an African novel. There is no heroic character struggling against poverty or oppression; instead we have an unsympathetic narrator who has given up. Even his nickname, Broken Glass, suggests his incorrigible nature:

“…you can’t do anything to me, whoever heard of mending a Broken Glass…”

Having lost his job as a teacher, and his wife, he now spends his days in a bar, drinking and writing down the stories of those around him. Even this almost purposeful activity begins as a joke:

“let’s say the boss of the bar Credit Gone West gave me this notebook to fill, he’s convinced that I – Broken Glass – can turn out a book because one day, for a laugh, I told him about this famous writer who drank like a fish…”

The novel is written in a rambling style appropriate to its drunken narrator; long paragraphs cascading down the page without full stops and new chapters beginning abruptly without capitalisation. This is not to say it is in any way confusing to read – each chapter tends to focus on one story, usually based around another of the bar’s customers.

The novel opens as if Mabanckou’s main purpose was political satire. When the Minister for Agriculture hits on a memorable, if vacuous, catch phrase (“I accuse”), the President responds with anger:

“…he wished he had said it himself, and couldn’t understand why his own advisors hadn’t come up with a similarly short but snappy slogan…”

A desperate search for just such a phrase begins. The events which follow would not seem out of place in an episode of In the Thick of It, and neither would the chosen slogan, “I have understood you.”

However, from then on the novel is largely a series of hard luck stories told to Broken Glass by customers in the bar. These are amusing but suffer from the law of diminishing returns, particularly as they all tend to revolve around betrayal by a woman. They certainly highlight powerlessness and injustice, with one man (“the Pampers guy” – here everyone is known by a nickname) ending up in prison without trial, and another, the Printer, in an asylum. (The latter takes place in France, suggesting that such treatment is not confined to Africa).

Broken Glass’s own story involves his anger at his wife for eventually leaving him, though most readers will sympathise with this decision as his unrepentant drinking, which culminates in his dismissal from his teaching position, becomes quite wearing even in the course of the novel. Here is his own description of his final days as a teacher:

“I apparently even used to turn up late for classes when I’d been drinking, and apparently I used to show my buttocks to the children in anatomy class, and apparently I used to draw giant sex organs on the board, and apparently I even used to piss in a corner of the classroom…”

Throughout it all he is unrepentant, revealing a nihilism in his drinking which seems as much a determination not to change as a need for alcohol.

For all its humour, the novel increasingly becomes a cry of despair, as the references to The Catcher in the Rye in the final chapters make clear. These are simply the most obvious of the allusions to both Western and African culture throughout. The intention may be to show that we cannot simply dismiss the narrator as ignorant and uncultured, or it may be that the writer wants to illustrate that, despite its naïve narrative style, the novel is as crafted as any other.

Broken Glass is an interesting novel as it portrays its African setting (the Congo) with an unabashedly modern slant. Mabanckou teaches French literature in California, and the most obvious influences are French and American. While it is ultimately despairing, the novel is often humorous, though the humour is frequently of a scatological kind (one of the funniest scenes in the book is a pissing contest). It is, however, rather uneven in its purpose: initially satiric, then tending towards set piece stories, and finally focusing largely on its narrator.

Could it win? It certainly has impact, but probably lacks the depth. It’s a slender 165 pages and structurally unconvincing.

Thursday Night Widows

March 28, 2010

Thursday Night Widows by Claudia Pineiro had already caught my eye (in a bookshop of all places) before the long-list was announced. Published by Bitter Lemon Press, with its title picked out on both spine and cover in blood red capitals, it would look like any other crime novel were it not for its rather unusual commendation from a Nobel Prize winner, Jose Saramago. It is like any other crime novel in the fact that it opens with a death (three deaths, in fact) and closes by explaining the events surrounding these deaths. In between, however, the novel is more interested in exposing the class divisions of Argentina.

While reading the novel, I came across the following in an extract from Tony Judt’s new book, Ill Fares the Land, in The Guardian:

“But inequality is not just a technical problem. It illustrates and exacerbates the loss of social cohesion – the sense of living in a series of gated communities whose chief purpose is to keep out other people (less fortunate than ourselves) and confine our advantages to ourselves and our families: the pathology of the age and the greatest threat to the health of any democracy.”

This seems to me to provide a good starting point to understanding the novel, set as it is in such a gated community, Cascade Heights:

“It has a golf course, tennis courts, swimming pool and two club houses. And private security…. That’s more than five hundred acres of land, accessible only to us or to people authorised by one of us.”

This narrative voice, what might be dubbed the ‘communal voice’, explains the rules, habits and attitudes of The Cascade with a complacency and smugness that admits no contradiction. It is intermingled with third and first person narration, the third person often focusing on those characters that don’t quite fit in; the first person providing us with a moderately sympathetic character in Virginia Guevara., and preventing the novel becoming an entirely savage attack on the wealthy. There is, however, a certain irony in the fact that the multiple viewpoints do not take us outside the gates.

The novel begins with Virginia’s husband, Ronie, arriving home unexpectedly early from his Thursday card night (the appellation ‘Thursday Night Widows’ is originally a comic reference to the husbands’ absence once a week) and shortly after jumping from the house’s balcony. The necessary hospitalisation that follows means that Virginia does not hear until the next day that the other three regular card players are all dead, apparently killed in an accident. Only at the end does the novel return to the scene of the accident and reveal what actually happened.

In the meantime we become acquainted with Cascade Heights, a name that suggests both superiority and a fall. The culture of the community is conveyed through a series of snapshots, each providing an insight into the families living there. Warning signs are in evidence immediately as Virginia and Ronie get a good deal on their property as the previous owner committed suicide. Virginia is impressed by the house’s study:

“A fully stocked bookcase lined all the walls. The spines were perfect and intact, bound I green and burgundy leather.”

However, the books are false, repeating the same titles over and over.

Cascade Heights is all about appearance. Gustavo may hit his wife, but is respected for his tennis skills. Mariana, desperate for a child, adopts a young girl and her baby brother, but she dislikes the girl’s name, Ramona, and changes it to Romina. Tellingly, when they arrive home for the first time, Ramona is left in the car:

“They went into the house together and the little girl saw the door close behind them.”

As the economic climate worsens, the pressure to keep up appearances increases. This leads to a number of amusing incidents, for example, Teresa persuading Lala to have her lawn reseeded:

“Listen, honey, I know your old man’s got no job and everything’s grim, but this is about more than that.”

Ultimately, though, the novel darkens towards its conclusion.

Could it win? It succeeds both as a crime novel and as an indictment of an unequal society. However, the fact that it is a whodunit (as Ian Rankin will tell you) makes it an unlikely winner.

Independent Foreign Fiction Prize

March 27, 2010

By far the most interesting book prize in Britain is that awarded by the Independent for fiction translated into English.The longlist was recently announced and you can see it here.

I had only read two of the books – The Coronation and Brodeck’s Report. I have already written at length about Brodeck’s Report which I greatly admire. The Coronation is another excellent Erast Fandorin novel, a series which I have followed from the outset. While it is unlikley to win, its inclusion demonstrates the variety that is to be found in the longlist.

Over the next few weeks I hope to read more of the books and include them on the blog, though as the shortlist is announced in April, I am unlikely to have read them all by then!

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.