7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
Jill I. Shtulman
- Published on Amazon.com
There are many reasons we read: for enlightenment, escape, education, and in some rare instances, to confront ourselves with truths and insights we never would have encountered otherwise.
Brodeck is one of those rare instances. It is, quite simply, one of the best contemporary books I have ever read. And I have read a lot.
The book - which reads like an allegory or dark adult fairy tale - transcends those genres by strongly tethering itself to recognizable events and images. Brodeck, by many indications, appears to be Jewish, yet he served as an acolyte to a priest in his youth, implying that he isn't. The locale appears to be in France's Alsace-Lorraine, yet many of the geographical features do not fit. And the Nazis have wrecked havoc in the region, yet they are never mentioned by name. What we DO know is this: Brodeck has been taken prisoner of war and has scratched and scraped his way to survival, serving as "Broderick the Dog" to sadistic camp officials. Against all odds, he has returned to his insular village where he is greeted with less than 100% enthusiasm.
And now, an elusive stranger referred to as the Anderer - the Other - has appeared in the village with his horse and donkey and sketch pads, serving as a mirror to the truth of the village's betrayals...its cowardice, dishonorable conduct, spinelessness and moral stain. Early on, we learn that the village participated in a mass murder of the Anderer and it falls upon Brodeck - a low-level bureaucrat who now makes his living cataloguing the area's flora and fauna - to write a whitewashing report about the event. Brodeck himself is also "the other"; he is an orphan, with only the sketchiest recollections of where he comes from and how he got to where he is. He knows that "each of us was a nothing. A nothing handed over to death. Its slave. Its toy. Waiting and resigned." His survival has not changed that fact: "The others the ones who came out of it alive, like me - all of us still carry a part of it, deep down inside, like a stain. We can never again meet the eyes of other people without wondering whether they harbor the desire to hunt us down, to torture us, to kill us."
His quest to discover what really happened to the Anderer is also a personal quest; to find out his own back story. At the start, the reader knows little: we know he has a mute wife Amelie and a young baby daughter and that he is merely tolerated by the village. As the book progresses, the picture begins to fall more and more into focus.
As he interacts with the various members of the community, he at one point meets with the village priest. In one of the most harrowing passages, the priest says, "Men are strange. They commit the worst crimes without question, but later they can't live anymore with the memory of what they've done. They have to get rid of it. And so they come to me, because they know I'm the only person who can give them relief, and they tell me everything. I'm the sewer, Brodeck. I'm not the priest; I'm the sewer man."
This book achieves something I thought would be impossible in literature: it universalizes the Holocaust. It offers up Brodeck as "everyman" and his tormenters as "everyman" as well. It reveals mankind's ability to perpetrate the worst deeds and to turn its collective eye elsewhere when heinous deeds are being perpetrated. It displays our fervent struggle to forget and to absolve ourselves in the worst of times.
The prose is luminous and masterful. For that, I must partially give credit to the incredible translator, John Cullen. In reading international books, I've learned that a good translator can make or break a work of literature, and Cullen does Philippe Claudel proud. As for Claudel, his insights are astounding and his words are transformational. Some of the scenes are exquisitely painful to read; I gasped and shed tears on some of the more horrific.
Some evocations to works such as Camus' The Stranger and Ibsen's Enemy of the People come to mind but make no mistake: this is a highly original work. In the end, I knew that I had read something fiercely important - a modern masterpiece.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
- Published on Amazon.com
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.