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.