Archive for the ‘Philippe Claudel’ Category

Dog Island

May 29, 2021

Immigration into Europe from parts of the world where war, climate change and poverty make escape seem worth almost any risk is an issue which has increasingly challenged not only politicians but writers over the last decade. How can one write about the experience of a refugee or asylum seeker while living in material comfort and having unavoidably inherited a problematic white, colonial perspective? Yet, as James Kelman has pointed out:

“As long as art exists there are no areas of experience that have to remain inaccessible.”

The question is not a moral one (of appropriation), he argues, but a technical one of narrative. And so, in Go Went Gone, Jenny Erpenbeck centres her viewpoint on a retired university professor who encounters a group of refugees; in The Death of Murat Idrissi, Tommy Wieringa’s narrative perspective is that of second-generation immigrants; and in Philippe Claudel’s 2005 novel, Monsieur Linh and his Child, the author adopts the third person (between two novels both written in the first) and has the title character befriend an elderly widow, Monsieur Bark. Now, in Dog Island (translated by his usual translator, Euan Cameron), Claudel returns to the same theme.

As with his most famous novel, Brodeck’s Report, Claudel adopts the conventions of the crime genre while at the same time recounting the events in a way that gives the novel the aura of a fable, as he makes explicit in the opening pages:

“The story we are about to discover is as real as you may be. It takes place here, just as it could have happened there… The names of the people who live in the place matter little… Put your own names in their place. You are so alike, products of the same immutable mould.”

 True to his word, the characters remain unnamed: the Old Woman, the Mayor, the Doctor (occasionally a nickname, such as Swordy, is used). The story begins with the appearance of three bodies on the shore of Dog Island, the name of which, along with its volcanic landscape, is clearly intended to suggest The Canary Islands, though, in keeping with the novel’s fabular atmosphere this is never specified, and nor is it important:

“The dog stopped all of a sudden, barked, and set off on a mad run that took it fifty metres or so away, towards three long shapes that the swell of the tide had thrown up on the beach, but which it was still tossing around, as though reluctant to relinquish them completely.”

The bodies are discovered by the Old Woman, who was once the island’s teacher, America, scavenging on the shore, and Swordy, a fisherman. The Mayor is fetched, accompanied by the Doctor, and the Teacher, who is not an islander, also appears, drawn by the commotion. The Mayor’s immediate instinct is to cover up the find:

“In a few weeks’ time you’ll tell yourself you dreamed all this. And if you speak to me about it, if you ask me anything, I’ll tell you I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

The Mayor places the bodies in cold storage, asking all the witnesses to meet him later, to tell them that this discovery must be kept secret (although by this point someone has already told the Priest, who also turns up):

“Nothing, alas, will revive these three poor wretches. Letting the public know what has happened risks dreadful consequences and it will not bring them back to life.”

In particular, the Mayor is worried that the news will hamper his thermal baths project. Claudel makes the point that, while superficially sympathetic, the islanders find the corpses inconvenient. The Mayor decides to hide the bodies in the volcanic earth; they will later create a stench that one might call guilt.

The novel is plotted like a crime novel with both the hidden bodies and the disparate crew of witnesses, now yoked together by the cover up the deaths, providing tension. The Teacher is particularly unhappy with the Mayor’s decision and begins to investigate how the bodies arrived on their shore by spending his weekends on a hired boat charting the currents. In the meantime, a man arrives on the island with satellite photos of the bodies’ discovery. The Mayor immediately assumes he is with the police and dubs him the Superintendent. As is so often the case with crime fiction, the Mayor, having now set down the path of hiding the bodies, becomes evermore desperate in his actions, with the Teacher in particular suffering as a result.

Altogether it makes for a fast-paced read with a number of unexpected chicanes. While the characters may not be fully developed, neither are they two-dimensional; Claudel simply leaves enough space for the reader to inhabit them (almost as a script leaves space for the actor). The novel shows us both the greed which leads to human-trafficking and the protectionism which leads us to turn a blind eye to it. It is the Teacher who best sums up how most of us live, by refusing to live that way:

“I cannot remain on an island on which men live who are probably guilty of the worst crimes, and where other men live who prefer not to know or to forget about them so they can continue to sleep with complete peace of mind.”

Because it is a fable, or because it is a crime novel, punishment eventually arrives, a warning that not only is no man an island, no island is either.

The Tree of the Toraja

September 11, 2018

Philippe’s Claudel’s last book, 2012’s Parfums, was a series of short autobiographical essays, each memory evoked by a particular scent. Though his latest, The Tree of the Toraja (similarly translated by Euan Cameron), is categorised as fiction, it too takes the form of memoir, but whereas Parfums was a catalogue of life, The Tree of the Toraja is a meditation on death. It begins with the burial customs of the Toraja of Indonesia, particularly the way in which they treat the bodies of children:

“A cavity is carved out of the trunk of the tree. The little corpse wrapped in a shroud is placed inside. The opening of the sylvan tomb is filled in with a weave of branches and clothes. Gradually, over the course of years, the wood of the tree grows over it, retaining the child’s body within its own large body, beneath its newly healed bark. Then, very slowly, in harmony with the patient rhythm of the tree’s growth, begins the journey that will see it rise upwards towards the heavens.”

He contrasts this foregrounding of mortality with what he sees as our avoidance of death, a desire to look away, commenting, in reference to the reconstructed faces of a group of elderly American tourists, on “all the useless artifices we apply to our bodies to elude time and our fears.” The issue becomes more personal when he returns home to discover that one of his closest friends, his producer, Eugene, has cancer:

“In our society, the word ‘cancer’ resonates as though it were an ante-room of death.”

Eugene does, indeed, die six months later. His illness is the lens through which Claudel reflects not only on death but on his life. Their long relationship – Eugene was the producer of his first film – means that we learn something of his career as a film-maker, as far back as his early interest in film, sparked by Sergio Leone:

“I remember the eyes of the hero, immense on the screen of the Georges cinema. Two enormous eyes that completely filled the canvas… For the first time, I realised that’s someone had decided to focus on a small aspect of the actor’s expression, and to confront the audience with his gigantic eyes. Just as later on, in the same way, in this same film, he chose to make the hero’s body smaller, to reduce it to the size of an ant, both he and his horse, and to lose them in the landscape, a tiny moving fragment of life in the red stone desert.”

This tells us something of Claudel’s own approach, a combination of quiet moments in close-up and distant reflection. We see this particularly in his relationship with Elena, a relationship which begins with observation:

“A permanently jammed blind revealed her bedroom… She had never appeared to be concerned by my presence, nor by that of other inhabitants in the building who, like me, were able to watch her every move.”

They eventually meet in such an unlikely way one assumes it must be true, as she is the doctor he is put in contact with by Eugene’s daughter to ask about the development of serious illnesses. It is she who focuses his thoughts on our relationship with the body itself:

“For years you have lived with it, in it, in perfect osmosis… Then time slowly began to erode your partner… Eventually we forget the qualities of the other person and only see what is irritating us…”

As their relationship progresses, Claudel will continue, at times, to withdraw himself from her, as though looking from a distance, even as they are together:

“When, after making love, Elena laid her face in the hollow of my shoulder and closed her eyes, I could not rid myself of the thought she was sleeping on death, that I was a recumbent effigy but she did not know this yet…”

It is Elena who will provide the novel with hope, though it has to be said that Claudel’s love life, which includes regularly sleeping with his ex-wife in a hotel room, appears – to this UK reader at least – almost cartoonishly French. It does, however, contrast an openness towards sex with a reluctance to discuss death.

The Tree of the Toraja is more memoir than philosophical tract, and all the better for it. Claudel is an engaging narrator, and many readers will identify with both his fears and experiences. His story is lightened by a number of poignant moments, my favourite being when he and Eugene leave the hospital for a nearby café and encounter Milan Kundera, who Eugene describes as “the writer who has mattered more to me than anyone else.” This chance encounter is typical of the coincidences and collisions which kindle Claudel’s thinking and make the book such a pleasure.

The Investigation

November 19, 2012

Philippe Claudel’s novels have always tended towards the generalised and emblematic: in Brodeck’s Report the Second World War is never actually mentioned; in Monsieur Linh and his Child, which focuses on the experience of an immigrant arriving in Europe, no countries are specified. The Investigation (already published in America and due from MacLehose Press in January) takes this one step further by transporting us into a world of Kafkaesque farce.

The novel begins with the Investigator’s arrival in an unnamed city (characters are known by their purpose rather than by name). An East European atmosphere is created by his arrival by train, snow in the air, and the fact that “a giant billboard displayed the hugely enlarged photograph of an old man”. However, this is countered by the Investigator’s task (the Investigator is quite unlike K in that he is very clear about his purpose): to investigate a number of suicides at an all-encompassing company known as the Enterprise. Are we satirising totalitarianism or rampant capitalism? There’s no time to consider this as the Investigator is immediately faced with one problem after another. He cannot get into the Enterprise as it is after nine o’clock and must search for a hotel. The only one he can find is the ironically named Hope Hotel where he is not allowed a room until he has memorised the rules and been tested on them. Even at this early point the Investigator wonders if he might be in hell:

“Then with brutal abruptness a thought came to him, a luminous, self-evident, indubitable thought: He was dead. He’d died without noticing it.”

In another novel we might take this as an indication that the author intends the experience to represent his vision of hell, or his view that that life is hell, but here it already feels more in keeping with a literary in-joke. The hotel will offer numerous comic set pieces: later he will have to lift his bed in order to open the door to a luxurious bathroom where he discovers the only water is scalding.

The Enterprise is equally, though less explicitly, inhospitable. A Guide provides him with a white coat and hard hat (completely unnecessary) and conducts him to an office where he is soon abandoned. Later the same man, returns as the Watchman and threatens him with a gun. If Claudel’s intention is to satirise big business then his targets seem very small scale. We are offered a few deliberately two dimensional characters to laugh at but no sense of how the Enterprise works.

The novel does build towards a symbolic conclusion, but by that point it is difficult to say what Claudel’s target is. Perhaps he is simply suggesting that any search for the truth will be hampered and obstructed. We see this more explicitly in the Investigator’s search for food, something that touches on Claudel’s previous concerns as, when he finally feasts, it is in the company of immigrants who are given nothing. This is a rare moment when the novel seems politicised. Otherwise it is thoroughly entertaining, often amusing, but only occasionally unsettling. Claudel has taken his generalising to the point where any connection with the real world has been lost: yes, it is clothed in reality but it seems more fantasy than satire. This is perhaps why Claudel seems to insist on its fictionality a little too forcefully at the end. It’s great fun to read, and perhaps a little too much fun to write, but, like the Investigator, the Reader leaves the novel none the wiser.

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.