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.