My TBR reading continues with Philippe Claudel's Brodeck's Report (translated from French by John Cullen), winner of the 2007 Prix Goncourt des Lyceens and the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2010. I remember buying it soon after the latter award, having read some very positive reviews around the blogosphere. It was during one of those deadly Sunday afternoon trips to Waterstones that I used to indulge in; one of three or four books I probably bought that day. I don't remember what those others were, but I remember this one because I was so sure I wanted to read it immediately. Two years later and I have finally got around to it.
I'm almost glad I waited. Brodeck's Report is such a subtle and plain bird on first acquaintance that I might not have appreciated it so much in the heat of the hype. In the event it has entirely suited langourous February reading, with the chilly spring sunshine dazzling out of the window but the heating still on full. It is a cold-hot sort of read, an oxymoron of a book. It's innocently devious, full of detailed vagueness, made up of murky clarifications. It's stupendously postmodern, in the simple form of a fable or folktale. If I had to categorise it, slap on a genre label above and beyond 'literary fiction',I would go with something like 'anthropological fiction'. It's a book with an anthropological outlook - it's subject is the liminal, the margins, the traumatics of community living.
Brodeck, our narrator, is living in two worlds: his body is anchored in the present, his mind in the past. The present is post-war - we're given to understand Second World War, although it is never made explicit - and he has returned to his village after years interred in a labour camp for 'Fremder' or foreigners. The village is unnamed but lingistically and geographically located in the Alsace region of France, on the cusp of the border with Germany. If we want we can situate the action in the bounds of our own world, but Claudel is ambigious: this is a real place and a never-never fabled sort of place. Into this place, and into the uneasy peace that has settled since Brodeck's return, comes another man, the Anderer. He arrives one evening riding a mare and leading a donkey, decked out in outlandish clothes, and takes up residence at the inn. Here he lives in seclusion for some months, the first visitor the Village has had since enemy occupation. He says very little; he declines to so much as give his name, which is why they call him Anderer, the 'Other'. He is indifferent to the curious questioning of the Mayor and instead wanders about sketching and writing in a little black notebook for no reason anyone can fathom.
The atmosphere deteriorates rapidly as the Villagers conceive a suspicious dread about the stranger. Who has sent him? What is he writing down? What does he want? Eventually they snap and murder him in cold blood. (I hasten to say that isn't a spoiler, it all happens before the action of the novel.) Afterwards the Mayor calls upon Brodeck, who went to university before the war and who now writes reports on the state of footpaths and local habitats for the government, to write the story of the Anderer. He is told to explain, to justify, the actions of the murderers. This he does. But at the same time he also writes the novel we are reading, in which he interweaves the fate of the Anderer with his own poor, tragic life story. The result is a startling postmodern fairytale about the atrocities of the mid-20th century, the familiar tragedy of war-time desperation made completely fresh and alien. The Holocaust, the internment camps, the ugliness of prejudice and xenophobia, as if they were a story by the Brothers Grimm.
Like any good fairytale the writing is stark and the book is rich in weather, food, mountains, rivers and rocks. Brodeck is deeply engaged with the landscape of his region, spending so much of his time traipsing its paths and byways. It reflects back to him the savage loneliness of his life. He was not born in the Village. He arrived as a child in the care of an old vagrant woman, Fedorine, who found him wandering alone in the aftermath of a massacre. The intimation is that he is Jewish; perhaps the victim of a Pogrom somewhere out to the east. The pair make a home in the Village, are tentatively accepted, and only rejected decades later when occupying forces arrive demanding that any foreigners be 'cleansed'. Brodeck is sent away to the camp and, although he survives by utterly submitting to the inhumanity and torture of that place, he has no home to return to. He arrives back in the Village but, like the Anderer, he will always be a stranger. He understands the parallel between himself and the murdered man immediately: 'I had a feeling that, in a way, he was me' he says. A mirror twin, an 'other' self.
But whereas the Anderer is striking, flamboyantly dressed and self-assured, Brodeck is uncomfortable in his skin - '...I am the wrong size for my life...it was never cut to fit a man like me', a man who 'looks like nothing at all.' Brodeck has no identity, no sense of himself in the world. The extremity of his recent experiences have only served to strip him down further to the slightest slip of humanity. No wonder then that he clings to his family: old Fedorine, his beautiful but damaged wife Emilia and his infant daughter Poupchette, who have also suffered terribly during the war. The Report is his act of defiance, and also his act of self-definition. He is inspired to use the Anderer to explore himself, to report back on his own life. It's uncomfortable reading.
It is difficult to say more without giving something essential away. Obviously the Report is not a straightforward linear narrative. The truth dips and weaves in and out of obscurity; it's narrator is a tortured soul in a sort of Purgatory, trying to tell the truth but sometimes deluded or afraid; and in the end there is very little solid ground. What really exists? Is the Village real or imagined territory? You have to follow Claudel into the Underworld to find out.