Brodeck: A Novel, Philippe Claudel (trans. John Cullen). Nan A. Talese. 336pp, $26.00.
Throughout his ten-year writing career, Philippe Claudel has selected mental and emotional fragility as his preferred literary landscape. His two previous novels Les Ames Grises, 2003 (By A Slow River, 2006) and La Petite Fille de Monsieur Linh, 2005, both examine the consequences of trauma on the fragile human psyche.
Brodeck, his most recent, and most stylistically and thematically ambitious offering to date, takes up this same issue of human weakness but from the more elaborate and potent perspective of the Holocaust. Yet he does not partake in a well-trodden Holocaust narrative and simply tweak it for the purposes of his main story. Claudel’s Holocaust is a silent, unnamed haunting—a background event of great magnitude, it is never given a proper name.
As with Claudel’s previous novels, Brodeck concerns itself with the redemptive power of narrative. There are two narratives at work in the novel: the artifact referenced by the original French title, Le Rapport de Brodeck, a document Brodeck is compiling to satisfy the local government, and the larger story he tells the reader within the margins of that supposedly central account. Appropriately, the novel opens with a narrative assertion:
I’m Brodeck and I had nothing to do with it. I insist on that. I want everyone to know. I had no part in it, and once I learned what had happened, I would have preferred never to mention it again. I would have liked to bind my memory fast and keep it that way, as subdued and still as a weasel in an iron trap.
This plaintive statement by Brodeck, a quiet land surveyor, will never be repeated. Instead, the idea of Brodeck’s absolution from the novel’s preoccupying tragedy will come to lie at the reader’s feet. And as Brodeck compiles his report—a request made by the mayor of his village and which he cannot refuse—Brodeck’s association to the event, along with the rest of the villagers, will come to signify something much greater than complicity in a shocking transgression.
The novel’s overarching structure is quite simple. Several years after a Great War (presumably World War II, although this is never specified), a heinous crime is committed in a small village somewhere in France near the German border. The exact location of the village remains unnamed, as does the time period, the cultural identity of the villagers, and most importantly, of the narrator. As he works through the details of the gruesome event, Brodeck must also re-create his own past and the time spent in an unnamed concentration camp during the War, but in doing this, he never once uses specific words like Nazi or Jew.
Claudel’s decision to avoid using these well-known terms is one of the more intriguing aspects of Brodeck. Keeping these details anonymous transforms the novel from a historical depiction into a frightening cautionary tale. This is not a narrative of something that happened, but something which happens and which, by default, will probably happen again. This idea is emphasized by the fact that Brodeck’s actual report is about a tragedy which occurs after the war has ended, thus proving our capacity for this kind of human weakness a continual threat.
The anonymity of the place and the people and the horror of the Holocaust are Claudel’s two layers of subtext. But on top of those he creates the story of the Anderer, the Other: a man who arrives in the village and threatens the harmony of the community. He is a threat because his difference works like a mirror, revealing the true nature of the villagers. Faced with that dangerous truth, they make a horrifying, but all-too-human decision.
Brodeck’s report is a circuitous, meandering account of the human reaction to life-threatening situations. To fear. The testing begins as the War dawns, when Brodeck explains how the villagers are asked to choose between their own safety and the scapegoating of fellow villagers and lifelong friends, and it is then maintained by anecdotes of events which occur while the village is occupied by foreign soldiers. But this testing continues after the extreme circumstances of the war have ended, when the Anderer arrives into a seemingly peaceful community. By detailing the villagers’ willingness for continued sacrifice in order to self-protect, Claudel exposes our woeful mediocrity.
The camp taught me this paradox: man is great but he can never measure up to his full greatness. It’s an impossibility inherent in our nature. When I made my vertiginous journey, when I descended one by one the rungs of the sordid ladder that carried me ever deeper into the Kazerskwir, I was not only moving toward the negation of my own person but also, at the same time, proceeding toward full awareness of my tormentors’ motivations and full awareness of the motivations of those who had delivered me into their hands. And thus, somehow toward a rough outline of forgiveness.
It was the fear others felt, much more than hatred or some other emotion, that had made a victim of me. It was because fear had seized some of them by the throat that I was handed over to torturers and executioners, and it was also fear that had turned those same torturers, formerly men like me, into monsters; fear that had caused the seeds of evil, which we all carry, to germinate inside them.
Finally, what is most singular about Claudel’s novel is that Brodeck is not used as a contrasting example. As he painstakingly reveals, Brodeck himself harbors the same seeds of evil, the same mediocrity of soul. The difference is his awareness and regret. For that alone, Claudel makes him worthy of the task put before him.
Michelle Bailat-Jones is a freelance translator and writer. The holder of an MFA from Emerson College, she blogs on literature at Incurable Logophilia.
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