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.