We will soon be into the 2011 Independent Foreign Fiction award so these comments on the 2010 winner are late in the extreme. That is partly because I was so busy with teaching and writing a research paper on using simulations in teaching. But also because I did not want to write any of my reviews until I had read the entire short list for the award. There was one very long book on the short list! That all said, here’s what I made of Brodeck’s Report.
Philippe Claudel Brodeck’s Report 2009 London Maclehose Press
Translated from French by John Cullen Claudel’s short novel is a tense, brooding but revealing study of life in an apparently French community just after a war which people want to forget. At least the back cover of the novel it is certain the action takes place in France but in fact Claudel is far more indeterminate than this. This is a semi-allegorical novel and the place names recall a region between France and Germany, perhaps Alsace?
Brodeck is himself something of an outsider in this community, having come from the East as a child with Fedorine, an old woman now, who took him in. Brodeckm married to Emelie, has a child, a beautiful daughter Poupchette, at this point but much remains murky. Brodeck is given the task of writing a report to ‘explain’ how a visitor, the anderer, came to be killed. Anderer means wanderer and refers both to an individual and a community. Claudel loses no opportunity to ram home a message on the role of collective forgetting.
The village ‘forgets’ Brodeck when he is removed and sent to the concentration camps and includes his name on the village memorial to those who lost their lives. When Brodeck returns his name name is casually scratched off the list of missing and dead. As Claudel puts it ‘ he is de-effaced’.
The villagers are presented as frequently ugly, suspicious and inward looking. The Anderer’s crime is that he came to the village and drew some pictures of villagers which he put on display at a party he paid for. Seeing themselves as an outsider sees them is too much for the villagers – the anderer has to go. Of course his death carries all the themes of sacrifice. Claudel avoids any obvious linkage of events in the book with any religious group but we quickly see this as the nazi incursion into France, the concentration camps and the holocaust.
Towards the end of the novel we learn of what really happened to Emelie when Brodeck was taken away and why she hums and sings but never speaks. Told in whispers and with self-justification and avoidance of responsibility the world of the village is closed. Brodeck and his family including the aged Fedorine have no choice but to leave.
As I said above Brodeck’s Report is semi-allegorical. Its strength is that it makes us think again about collective memory and responsibility. My quick read of reviews showed that about half felt it was a beautiful short novel and the other half felt it was over-stated and flawed in some ways. I think there is over-statement but I also think there has not been enough mention of responsibility in the reviews. That is what Claudel is writing about. How far can individuals take on responsibility for others and what terms of reference do we use to view strangers and outsiders? Can a secular community offer responsibility or does it avoid it? Brodeck carries a responsibility with him and his problem is that all around have denied their responsibility. Consequently they are no longer human in a full sense. Hence Claudel uses the notion of stereotyping and criticism to show this but only when a person avoids responsibility. Hence the use of dark and shade in the novel. Brodeck is the outsider too because as Orschwir the mayor says, having read Brodeck’s report and then burned it in front of him, You’re right it was only paper, but that paper contained everything the village wants to forget – and will forget – We’re not all like you Brodeck’. The literary parallel as others have noted is with Coetze’s Waiting for the Barbarians. The latter is on apartheid although it never says so, while Brodeck’s Report is on forgetting what Nazis did to Jews and indeed on French forgetting of collaborationists. The theme of personal and group responsibility is clear.
Camus and his work also permeates this short book. L’Etranger carries themes of personal responsibility and The Plague gives us the community context. Claudel is a film maker and there is always a sense of how the scene might look and how sparingly symbols inform the tale but how deeply.
I enjoyed this book, knew I wanted to re-read it and was glad it won the Independent Foreign Fiction prize for 2010. I should now be ready for reading the short list for the 2011 award perhaps before the announcement of the winner.