Imagine a region on the border between two powers, its nominal sovereignty shuffled between them with the ebb and flow of history. Imagine a place whose personal and place names belong to one country, but whose official language is that of the other, and whose local dialect is a hybrid known only to its inhabitants. Imagine a land of mountains and forests, where individual villages are isolated "like eggs in nests," and where even somebody arriving from three hours' walk away will seem a stranger. Philippe Claudel was born in Lorraine, parts of which have shifted between France and Germany, but the setting of his novel is left deliberately vague. The country borders on Germany, of that there is no doubt, but the mountains seem a lot higher than the Vosges, and the isolation is more complete.
I read the book in French (as LE RAPPORT DE BRODEK), and Claudel does something similar with the language. The French (sometimes elevated, sometimes down to earth, always brilliant) is sewn with numerous German words in italics. But they are German with a French accent, German in a dialect, words which may mean one thing but suggest others. The word for their neighbors over the border, for instance: "Fratergekeime," with its suggestion of both brother and stranger. Added to the mostly-Germanic proper names and the vagueness about place and time, Claudel creates a kind of fog with his writing, despite the clarity of his actual descriptions. It was a doubly interesting experience for me to add that extra layer of reading in a foreign language to a book where foreignness is a major subject.
For Claudel's fog parallels a moral miasma, where nothing is as it seems. There is absolute evil, certainly, and at least one radiant touch of absolute good, but for the most part the moral lines are not so clearly drawn. Brodeck, who admits to being a nobody, stumbles into the village inn to find all the men of the village there, following the murder of a visitor from outside, a man known only as the "Anderer" (the Other). This stranger, oddly dressed, smiling but saying little, came to them three months earlier, riding a horse and leading a donkey, and has stayed to make sketches of people and places around the village. We know nothing else about him, and only gradually realize that he is dead. Brodeck, who has had some university education, is asked to write a report that will exculpate them all for their actions. As the period appears to be just after the Second World War, there are obviously many reasons why the villagers might decide to take justice into their own hands. Brodeck writes his report at the behest of the mayor, a huge pig-farmer named Orschwir, but he feels increasingly uneasy in doing so, and simultaneously tells his own story in a separate document.
Brodeck apologizes for telling his story out of sequence, but really this is one of Claudel's greatest technical achievements. It soon becomes clear that we are dealing with a Holocaust narrative, and that Brodeck is one of the very few who have survived the camp and returned. The horror is simply there as a fact, a touchstone of absolute evil among so much moral uncertainty. Much as Styron would do in SOPHIE'S CHOICE, Claudel takes us there, then pulls away, only to return with further details later. So Brodeck's story is layered like sheets of paper cut up and folded together. It is also compressed in time; we recognize the events, but they do not fit the normal timeline. Similarly, Claudel avoids any facile type-casting. Brodeck, for instance, might be Jewish, but he might equally be Romany; at any rate, he was brought to the village as an orphan child, a stranger from far away. And the confused nationality of the villagers themselves also precludes easy classification, as friends, collaborators, or even enemies.
Claudel has a way of introducing major plot points in almost casual throwaways, but with each revelation we learn more about the other people in the story, whether these be Brodeck's immediate family (his wife Emélia, his infant daughter Poupchette -- an especially tender creation -- or his adopted mother Fédorine) or the various inhabitants of the village. One by one, we meet the drunken priest, the old schoolmaster, the frightened innkeeper, the nosy neighbor Göbbler (another wonderfully evocative name), and many others. We also get many different views of the Anderer, who says little but seems to have the power to reflect each person's character back on themselves, like a mirror. The curious thing is that the more we see the villagers as individuals, the more they seem to coalesce into a group, joining forces against all outsiders. They are shut in as much by the narrowness of their own minds as by their mountains. Much evil in those years was the result of group pathology, yet Claudel also shows us why, in certain circumstances, group solidarity is necessary.
Grim though this story is, Claudel lightens it with almost ecstatic descriptions of the mountain countryside. Its harsh facts are offset by rays of unexpected grace, unexplained events, and persistent Biblical overtones. As a novel, it is impossible to pin down, and deliberately so. It is all too easy to take a Holocaust story and tell it in the past; it happened, but it is over, and the people responsible were not ourselves. By refusing to pin people down with places, dates, and nationalities, Claudel avoids the easy distinction of Them and Us, and suggests that something very similar might happen now. Focusing on what happens when the survivors come home is a brave and powerful approach. I can think of only two other examples: DAWN by Elie Wiesel and WANDERING STAR by JMG LeClézio. Both these authors are winners of the Nobel Prize; from the evidence of this novel, Philippe Claudel might well enter their company.