Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, France, holocaust, literary fiction, Philippe Claudel, Publisher, Quercus, Setting

‘Brodeck’s Report’ by Philippe Claudel

Brodeck's Report

Fiction – paperback; Quercus; 278 pages; 2009. Translated from the French by John Cullen.

Philippe Claudel is a French writer, film director and academic. I read his first novel, Grey Souls, in November 2006 and described it as “a deeply mysterious, brooding novel”. The same could be said of his second novel, Brodeck’s Report, which evokes the same eerie atmosphere.

The book is set in a village somewhere in northern France near the German border sometime after the Second World War. Or, that is what we are lead to believe, because Claudel might be heavy on the symbolism and the atmosphere, but he is very light on specifics. We can only assume, from the clues that are dotted throughout the narrative, that this is the case.

The story is narrated by Brodeck, a survivor of a (presumably Nazi) concentration camp, who has returned to his village to be with his adopted mother, wife and young daughter. He makes his living by venturing into the nearby mountains to collect data and compile reports on the natural environment for the Government.

But one day he is asked to compile a report of a very different kind. A stranger to the village, dubbed the Anderer (which means “the other”), has been murdered by the locals. The locals now want Brodeck, who was not present when the crime was committed, to “explain what went on from the time he arrived in the village and why they had no choice but to kill him”.

What results is a rather beautiful, occasionally murky but always symbolic, multi-layered narrative which puts the Anderer’s arrival into context and shows how Brodeck, who is kind-hearted, emotionally damaged and psychologically scarred, begins to identify with him. It meanders back and forth, “leaping over time like a hurdle, getting lost on digressions and maybe even, without wishing to, concealing what is essential”.

Fairy tale lore

The story mines a rich seam of fairy tale lore, albeit with a very dark edge, casting the Anderer as “some sort of genie” who arrives in the village wearing “fancy old-style clothes” with a pair of “beasts” as mounts:

The Anderer was a mystery. Nobody knew who he was. Nobody knew where he came from or why he was here. And nobody knew whether he understood them when they spoke in dialect.

Brodeck, also an outsider (and most likely a Jew, with “a tiny piece of flesh missing from between my thighs”), is the only one who welcomes his arrival because it was a “sign of rebirth, a return to life”.

For me, it was as though an iron door that for years had sealed the entrance to a cave had now been opened wide, and the air of the cave had suddenly taken in the wind and the beams of a bright sun. But I could not imagine that sometimes the sun grows bothersome, that its beams, which light up the world, inadvertently illuminate what people are trying to hide.

I could quote hundreds of passages from this novel which show Claudel’s uncanny ability to hint at things without nailing them down. Motifs and symbols abound. And the ambiguity in the storyline only adds to the mystery and profoundness of it.

This is not an easy book to read, because it is so jam-packed with ideas and abstractions, tangents and digressions, but it is profoundly affecting. It’s a novel about love, alienation, memory, forgiveness, betrayal, how the past informs the future, and the terrible, terrible things of which every single human being is capable.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, France, historical fiction, literary fiction, Philippe Claudel, Phoenix, Publisher, Setting

‘Grey Souls’ by Philippe Claudel

Grey souls

Fiction – paperback; Phoenix; 184 pages; 2006. Translated from the French  by Adriana Hunter.

Grey Souls, by Philippe Claudel, is a deeply mysterious, brooding novel set in a small French village during the First World War.

The unnamed narrator, a melancholy soul with secrets of his own to keep, reflects on the investigation of a young girl’s murder in 1917.

Swinging backwards and forwards in time, the narrator explores the town’s leading figures — the judge, the public prosecutor, the school teacher et al —  and shows how the murder affected them, socially, professionally and emotionally.

At the same time, he examines his own life — the ups and downs and great pains he has borne — in order to get at the real truth: was justice delivered when a soldier confessed to the crime?

I read this book holed up in bed with the worst chest infection known to man and I can’t say that this book lightened my mood any. It is very well written, if somewhat meandering to begin with, but the subject matter is quite heavy and depressing and the narrator’s voice borders on suicidal.

At times I found it difficult to work out in which direction the story was going, but the prose is so free of abstractions and beautifully restrained that I didn’t mind too much: I just enjoyed the writing.

Grey Souls is definitely not a light read, but it is certainly a thought-provoking one. And the ending is positively astonishing, if somewhat appalling.