Brodeck Paperback – Jul 13 2010
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"Arrives like a fresh, why-haven't-we-known-him discovery, revealing Philippe Claudel
to be as dazzling on the page as he is on the screen."--The New York Times
“Extraordinary. . . . [A] modern masterpiece.”—The Independent, London
"A haunting, intensely claustrophobic allegory about intolerance, trauma and guilt."--San Francisco Chronicle
“A layered recollection of wartime crimes, atrocities, cowardice, and betrayal.”—The Boston Globe
“Claudel’s insightful prose, translated gracefully by John Cullen, renders the tale both literary and deeply philosophical.”—Washington City Paper
"This is a remarkable novel, all the more so because this account of man's inhumanity to man, of coarse and brutal stupidity, of fear and surrender to evil, is nevertheless not without hope. Brodeck survives because, despite all he has experienced, he remains capable of love. It is also beautifully written."—The Scotsman
“This novel, like the brothers Grimm fables, is full of terror, horror, and beauty and wonder.”—Publishers Weekly
"Philippe Claudel is at the peak of his art as a storyteller and portrait-painter."
"It is a relentless, uncomfortable book that achieves a beauty of its own through Claudel's deft writing and passionate commitment to truth.”—The Times, London
About the Author
Philippe Claudel is the author of many novels, among them By a Slow River, which was awarded the Prix Renaudot and the Elle Readers' Literary prize, Brodeck, which won the Prix Goncourt des Lycéens, and La Petite Fille de Monsieur Linh. Each of these novels have been translated into more than thirty languages. Claudel also wrote and directed the film I've Loved You So Long starring Kristin Scott Thomas and Elsa Zylberstein, which opened in movie theaters in the United States in the fall of 2008 and in thirty other countries around the world.See all Product Description
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Be warned: "Brodeck" is not a fast paced book. It has no intention of racing through pages at a breath-taking speed. Instead, narrator Brodeck calmly tries to arrange his thoughts on paper, essentially leading to three stories. In one, Brodeck tells about life before the unnamed war (easily the second world war), in another, he tells of his war experiences (clearly the camps) and in the third he tells of the "Anderer", the "other", a man who suddenly and strangely appeared in Brodeck's town after the war. These three stories develop side-by-side in a rather non-linear fashion: hints in regards to each are dropped along the way but they're not meant to surprise, necessarily. The story simply grows and becomes clearer as Brodeck tells his tale.
This is not much of a Holocaust tale, even as the remarkable unnamed parallels become clear. The story focuses less on the horror of the war and more on consequences. It shrinks a giant story and presents one man, one town, one situation. The story does not ever feel tired or old; rather, its anonymity gives it new light. While aspects of the setting seem set in stone, each reader leaves the book with their own impressions regarding certain aspects, with their own interpretations and their own crystal clear image of the story.
It helps that "Brodeck" is beautifully written. Claudel sticks to the flowing elegance of "By a Slow River" but gives it a slight nudge, leading to a story that actually moves along. Each chapter adds and leads into the next, even as the stories shift and change. It's difficult to set this book aside for long without wanting to understand more about these perfectly drawn characters. Brodeck may be the main character, but he is far from the only one: Claudel manages to create an entire diverse town, full to the brim with whole characters. Whether it's a strange eccentric man, the town priest, the mayor or a whole range of human characters, each man woman and child feels real and speaks truly. Even as Claudel (through Brodeck) prefers to highlight the bad, sparks of humanity and good still emerge on occasion, despite the dark undertones to the story.
"Brodeck" is an excellent book that will stick with readers for a long time to come. It is a dark story, representing (for the most part) the dim parts of human nature, traveling deep into gray/black murky waters. It is not meant to be a quick cheerful tale, but "Brodeck" is powerful, fascinating and wonderfully written. It'll be hard to leave "Brodeck" without feeling slightly changed or at least feeling more aware of certain things. Whether the characters draw you in, the plot appeals to you, or Claudel's clear, elegant prose attracts you, "Brodeck" is worth the time.
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.
The biggest story is the backdrop of history, of camps in a nation that has undergone cleansing. We can't be certain the character is talking about Nazi Germany, but we can be fairly comfortable with that analogy.
Or...perhaps the biggest story is that of the visitor, the traveler, and an event that occurs in this village, already scarred by fear, suspicion, and a decided lack of kindness.
Or...maybe the biggest story is about the report that our protagonist Brodeck must write, is asked to write, to explain the situation with the visitor. And in collecting interviews, we learn about the villagers, their dark hearts, and their consciences which ought to be guilty. Crowd psychology, what fear will make people do.
I'm taken by the non-linear presentation, yet it flowed like silk. The natural environment, the Valley, the secrets and suspicions. The things I read that I still question - particularly the reality of some things.
I won't forget this book. Nor his name.
Brodeck is one of them, but, unlike the others, he is far from monumental. He is timid and quivers with anxiety after his appalling experiences in a concentration camp from which he had recently returned. (There are hints, never made explicit, that he was of Jewish origin.) He has an insignificant job reporting to the local administration on the state of the local paths and streams, fauna and flora.
The villagers have murdered a man who had come to the village from Outside and whom from the beginning they had called the `Anderer' [sic - the Other], and later, more ominously, the `Fremder' [Foreigner]. Brodeck had not been present at the murder, but because he is a reporter, the villagers force him to write a report for the mayor of the village to pass on to the authorities. He had not been present because he was himself something of an Outsider, having been brought to the village as an orphan child soon after the First World War, and then having returned to it from the camp when those who had denounced him to the Germans had presumed him dead. (Just how much of an Outsider or `Fremder' he has always been considered emerges later.) It is clear from the start that the task he has been given is dangerous: for before he can carry it out, he has to question himself and others about the circumstances which had led to the murder.
He zigzags back and forth between shards of memory. Many of course concern the enigmatic Anderer who had been seen sketching or writing things into his notebooks, but who hardly ever spoke. The tension that builds up around him grips not only the villagers, but the reader also.
Other memories recall Brodeck's horrifying past experiences: the inhumanity of men in the mass, a murderous city riot, life and death in the camps. We learn how the villagers had behaved under the occupation of the Germans, who are referred to throughout as `Fratergekeime' [brother brood? because they spoke the same language?]: the betrayals of frightened collaborators, willing collaborators, penitent collaborators. None of them can now bear to see the truths about themselves.
Brodeck recalls oppressive heat and freezing cold (the weather often plays the part of a chorus), smells of cooking, of smoke, of farm animals, of ordure, of decaying corpses and of perfumes. There is his love - its pathos becomes clearer as the story progresses - for his wife, his young daughter, and for the wise old woman who has looked after him as nurse and housekeeper ever since she had brought him as an orphan to the village.
There are some near-surrealistic incidents, and passages rich in similes and symbolism. A haunting work of art.
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.