Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Brodeck's Report by Philippe Claudel

This has to be one of the most unsettling books I have read.  Written by Philippe Claudel, Professor of Literature at the University of Nancy and based on a translation by John Cullen, it raises many questions and will keep you thinking and puzzling long after you have finished it.

The first line of the book – ‘My name is Brodeck and I had nothing to do with it’ – sets the tone immediately.   This is a man writing a report about some event of which he is aware but was ‘outside’ the horrendous occurrence, not part of it. Within three pages we know the ‘event’ involves the murder of an outsider to the village.   The village is deliberately unnamed as indeed is the area though it becomes apparent that it is set in an isolated village somewhere in the mountainous region of Alsace where the language is a German dialect.

Brodeck himself is different from the local inhabitants.   He came to the village having been rescued as a war orphan by an old woman, Fedorine, with whom he still lives.  Having achieved well in the local school he was sent to Germany to university where he fell in love with Emelia who returned to the village with him as the Second World War loomed.   The subsequent invasion of the village by the Germans and the horrors associated with it involve Brodeck deeply and become memories that the village want to expunge.   But those memories are something that Brodeck cannot obliterate.   As one of the few survivors he feels ‘disappointment and disquiet ferment within us.   I think we have become and will remain until the day we die, a reminder of humanity destroyed.   We are wounds that will never heal’.

He is then uniquely qualified to write a report as requested by the village leaders on the events surrounding the murder of the ‘outsider’.   The outsider who is never named is known simply as the anderer or ‘other’ and this concept above all is gripping.   Fear of the Other has always been a foundational element of society.   Man originally formed bonds and alliances for purely simple and selfish reasons – for personal survival in the face of the Other.  And our history is one of convulsion and war with the ‘Other’ – an unidentified and unidentifiable entity, an unknown unknown [to misquote everyone’s favourite American!].  Throughout history and even more in recent times, freedom is  strangled by the fear of losing it to the Other.  Brodeck broods over the very idea of History as he compiles his report and wonders ‘why do some people retain in their memory what others have forgotten or never seen?   Which is right:  he who cannot reconcile himself to leaving the past in obscurity, or he who hurls into obscurity everything that does not suit him?   To live, or to go on living – can that be a matter of deciding that the real is not entirely so?’   Claudel faces us in this narrative with some deep philosophical issues.

To quote Rosalind Sykes of the Financial Times, ‘there are dark shades of Kafka, Camus and Primo Levi but Claudel’s lyricism evokes the deliciousness of life even as he plumbs the depths of intolerance and evil’.

The narrative is powerful and the characterisations brilliant if disturbing from the sly manipulations of the town mayor, Orschwir, to the underhand dealings of Gobbler, the town busybody and the beautiful ethereal nature of Emelia who has herself suffered horribly.   Claudel has the ability to create almost a fairy tale wonder while at the same time describing a virtual cesspool of humanity.   The translation is deft and expert.   This  book is awe-inspiring.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

What not to read!

Sometimes I am totally at a loss as to why a particular book wins a major prize but never more so than the winner of the  2010 Costa First Novel Award, Witness the Night by Kishwar Desai.   With so much worth reading out there, dare I give you a bit of advice about it - don't bother!  

Desai clearly has a cause to champion and a worthy one too, namely, female infanticide and, increasingly, female foeticide, specifically in the Punjab.   No one would argue about the horrors associated with these practices.   However, if they are to be incorporated as the pivotal element of a piece of fiction, then the author needs  a good narrative.   That is sadly lacking.   The book is badly written, badly edited and barely hangs together.   Irritatingly it is littered with Hindi words which are unexplained by the author, nor is any glossary provided and, to tell you the truth, one can't be bothered to look them up.

Her protagonist, the narrator, is according to herself a hard-bitten forty five year old social worker, an Indian working in Britain but back in the Punjab for the purposes of this novel, a smoker and a copious drinker - which  she  tells us every few pages.   Nevertheless, this 'hard-bitten' social worker [embarrassingly] goes weak at the knees falling into the 'mesmerising green eyes' of a character  who is clearly the villain of the piece.

The scariest element of this whole book is provided in the blurb where we are told that Desai's debut novel 'introduces' the feisty protagonist - are they warning us there are more  to come?

The final touch is that this horror story  is published by an outfit called 'Beautiful Books'!!

Friday, March 4, 2011

The Joys of Variety

At the moment I am jumping from book to book interspersing some brilliant fiction with some equally brilliant non fiction.   The indomitable Eric Hobsbawm has a new title out, How to Change the World, and, though Terry Eagleton says in his review of it in this week's London Review of Books [3 March] that 'Hobsbawm ... is not quite as omniscient as the Hegelian World-Spirit, for all his cosmopolitan range and encyclopedic knowledge', this is a book that we can all learn from.   It is a collection of essays on Marxism, some of which have been published before but some only in Italian and Hobsbawm has brought them together in an accessible and exciting form.   More later when I finish it!

Two works of fiction I read last week were Tinkers by Paul Harding and Red April by Santiago Roncagliolo, both of which enthralled me.   Tinkers is Harding's first novel and, as with many new writers, it took him a long time to find a publisher but then went on to win the Pulitzer Prize last year.   It is exquisitely written in controlled and spare style but, oh, so beautiful.   There is not one word too many in this short novel - it is only 191 pages - but the pictures he conjures up are deep and lasting.

The narrative is told by George Washington Crosby who grew up in Maine but moved to Massachusetts when he was twenty one.   Now he is at the end of his life and hallucinating in the last throes of his illness which gives the author the scope to dispense with the constraints of time as the narrative moves between George's story and that of his father, Howard, who spent his life travelling through the backwoods of the state selling dry goods from his wagon particularly in the more isolated regions in the hills and woods of Maine.   George is a clock man, both repairing clocks and collecting them and the author gives us some fascinating information on the subject while using it as a source of juggling time and memory.

The book is a meditation not only on the sometimes harsh relationship of father and son but also the reflected hardship of nature in the cold winters of New England.   But it is also a story of love of life with an acceptance of loss.   Howard reflects at one point that 'everything is made to perish;  the wonder of anything at all is that it has not already done so'.   His description of his father going out of his life is both moving and startling:  'it seemed to me as if my father simply faded away.   He became more and more difficult to see....He leaked out of the world gradually'.   This man is a genuine wordsmith with a simple story to tell but in language few could equal.
Red April by Roncagliolo couldn't be a more different novel!   It is a translation by Edith Grossman  who has also translated Garcia Marquez's  Love in the Time of Cholera.   Roncagliolo was born in Peru and his novel is set in Lima in 2000 following the end of the war against the terrorist Shining Path.   This war, however, permeates the entire  novel but nobody wants to talk about it.  The narrator says at one point, 'the memory of the war had been buried along with its dead .. the memory of the eighties was like the silent earth in cemeteries.   The only thing everyone shares, the only thing no one talks about'.

The story opens with the discovery of a body described in a detailed and precise report by Felix Chacaltana Saldivar, Associate District Prosecutor and those adjectives aptly describe Chacaltana who is exact and precise in all his dealings.   A solitary man who preserves his dead mother's room in his house, talking to her as if she is alive, he deals with the subsequent horror that visits the city in a farcically controlled fashion.  The syntax and precise details of his reports resonate more with him than the events themselves.  The murders that take place are juxtaposed to the elaborate processions and rites that accompany the celebration of Holy Week.   It quickly becomes apparent that this is a most delicious satire of civil strife and the emotion that arises only heightens the author's sardonic approach to his narrative.   Behind the satire, though, is a certain sadness at a society that has been deeply damaged by terrorism.   Fear still underlies all of even the ordinary.

This is a book that bears thinking about when one has read it.   Nothing is quite as it first seems.   I would recommend you read it!