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B : powerful, but uneasy mix of allegory and more straightforward story
See our review for fuller assessment.
Almost all very impressed
From the Reviews:
- "Uncertainty is a major theme of Claudel's novel, which is both fable-like and documentary in style. While it is concerned with difference and intolerance as abstract, universal themes, Brodeck's Report is also a historical novel about a camp survivor (Brodeck) and the effect of Nazism on a specific place" - Giles Foden, The Guardian
- "Plot is not Claudelís strength, and the townís dark secret will not be much of a surprise. But he audaciously approaches a subject that seems thoroughly covered and makes it fresh." - Caryn James, The New York Times Book Review
- "Brodeck is a haunting, intensely claustrophobic allegory about intolerance, trauma and guilt. (...) I admire its hypnotic atmosphere and moral seriousness, but for me the narrative too strongly bears the stamp of its literary antecedents, Kafka above all. (...) More disconcerting is the novel's use of the Holocaust. Brodeck is clearly intended as a universal allegory, similar to Waiting for the Barbarians (which J.M. Coetzee wrote in the shadow of, but without specific reference to, apartheid). Claudel tries to have it both ways: He removes Judaism -- though not Christianity -- in order to universalize his fable, yet he relies upon the Holocaust for its representational and associative power." - Gregory Leon Miller, San Francisco Chronicle
- "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, and well translated. There are mysteries which are laid forth, but never explained -- like the mountain foxes which lie down and die for no discernible reason. I mentioned Kafka earlier, and the novel is as compelling as anything he wrote." - Allan Massie, The Scotsman
- "Set in a world imprecisely aligned with our own, this is a bleak fairytale about manís inhumanity to man and about how love seems to survive in unexpected places. Itís also about how society creates scapegoats to deal with inconvenient memories. There is certainly crime in this novel, but whether itís crime fiction is a different question. Whatever it is, itís well worth reading." - Andrew Taylor, The Spectator
- "Philippe Claudelís deeply wise and classically beautiful novel is an exception. It is a genuinely "adult" fairy tale that forces its reader to bear witness to the extremes of good and evil of which humanity is capable, without ever simplifying either the context or the individual human beings in which both possibilities dwell." - Helen Brown, The Telegraph
- "It is a relentless, uncomfortable book that achieves a beauty of its own through Claudel's deft writing and passionate commitment to truth. Claudel is a novelist of ideas, in the French tradition. He deals skilfully in archetypes and abstractions." - Ruth Scurr, The Times
Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers.
Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.
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The complete review's Review:
Brodeck's Report (now published as Brodeck in the US) is narrated by the eponymous protagonist.
His narrative, however, is a shadow report, a secondary one he writes for himself while also writing the official one he has been instructed to prepare.
Brodeck's Report is presented as being set in a fictional village in an unspecified time.
Nevertheless, the specifics bear a close resemblance to readily identifiable places and times: a devastating war has recently ended; Brodeck had been transported to and held in what amounted to a concentration camp during that war;
the local dialect in the village suggests a strong German influence, as in, for example, Alsace or other border-regions -- and many of the villagers' names are German-sounding, with Umlauts and all.
But Claudel goes out of his way to avoid factual references: no one is called a Nazi (or a Jew), for example, and even the local dialect is distorted just to the extent that it unmistakably cannot be an actual German (or Alsatian, etc.) dialect (something which non-German speakers may miss, as it all sounds very Germanic).
So Brodeck's Report is a semi-allegory of post-World War II life in a German village suffering from a lot of collective guilt.
But Claudel's semi-allegorical approach is problematic, to say the least.
While he sticks close to facts, he is never willing to make the obvious associations and spell them out: he does not, for example, ascribe the wartime horrors to the Nazis.
Yet his approach hardly makes any of this more universal: every reader recognizes that the bad guys here were the Nazis.
His setting mirrors reality so closely that the allegorical aspect feels far too forced, undermining his otherwise often powerful story.
The novel revolves around the fate of the Anderer -- 'the Other' -- a stranger (whose name they never learn) who came to town and outstayed his welcome.
It is the Anderer's fate which is the subject of Brodeck's (official) report.
The book opens with Brodeck being commissioned to write a report on the brutal murder of the Anderer.
Brodeck would rather steer clear -- he wants no part of any of this, and the opening line of the book is: "I'm Brodeck and I had nothing to do with it" -- but he's the one who went to university (at least for a while), he's the one with the typewriter, he's the one who usually prepares reports: all reason enough for the villagers to ask him to write the report.
Brodeck isn't thrilled by the idea, but he agrees; after all: "I had no desire to end up like the Anderer".
So he too becomes complicit, in a way.
But then, of course, he's long been complicit, by standing fairly idly by .....
Brodeck has good reason to worry about how he might end up, as his position in the village-community isn't so clear cut.
He, too, is an Anderer: he too came to the village as a stranger, a Jew fleeing his eastern homeland (not that that is ever spelled out in so many words) many years earlier.
Brodeck became part of the village -- at least as much as he could -- but a taint of otherness clings to him still.
So Brodeck's Report is a story full of denying the past, of forgetting and effacing it.
The official report would seem to be the antithesis of this -- setting fast a horrible event everyone wants to gloss over -- but it, too, serves its purpose
As the mayor tells Brodeck when the report is finished:
It's time to forget, Brodeck.
People need to forget.
And yet all they've been doing is forgetting (or trying to), all along -- so Claudel's message (hammered home at every opportunity).
In one of Claudel's more inspired touches there is a war memorial in the village, with the names of those lost inscribed on it: Brodeck's name was on it too, as it was thought he had perished, but then erased when he did come back -- a sly bit of de-effacing Claudel slips in:
Baerensbourg, the road mender, erased it.
The job caused him a great deal of difficulty -- it's always a very delicate undertaking to remove what is written in stone.
I can still manage to read my first name on the monument.
Clever -- but, of course, not very subtle.
No, there's little subtlety to Claudel's heavy-handed semi-allegory -- least of all in its conclusion, when mind does seem finally to triumph over matter in an ultimate gesture of effacement (or, more likely, delusion).
When Brodeck is commissioned to write the report he is told:
Don't change anything.
You must tell the whole story.
You must really say everything, so that the authority who reads the Report will understand and forgive.
What happened is revealed soon enough: the villagers brutally murdered the Anderer.
But, obviously, they believe that "the whole story" might provide some justification for their actions, and it does take a while for Brodeck to spit the whole story out.
(Needless to say, absolution would not be deserved.)
The villagers do have slightly guilty consciences -- but what they did to the Anderer is, of course, only the tip of the iceberg.
They are so guilty that it is nearly pointless to speak of guilt and innocence, much less forgiveness.
Among those destroyed by it is the village priest, who confides to Brodeck:
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.
I'm the man into whose brain they can pour all their ordure, all their filthy deeds, and then they feel relieved, they feel unburdened.
The Anderer's crime, the deed which pushes the villagers over the edge, is that he holds a little exhibition of drawings he has made of some of the townsfolk (including Brodeck) and some village-scenes.
Cruelly, the pictures are: "not really faithful, but very true" -- and truth is something the villagers don't want to see, since it is so very, very ugly.
Even Brodeck is nearly overwhelmed when he looks at his portrait, "an opaque mirror that threw back into my face all that I'd been and all that I was."
Needless to say, Brodeck is also carrying around quite a few burdens.
He was badly treated in the concentration camp, but he survived -- and it is that, of course, that weighs so terribly heavily on him: "I chose to live, and my punishment is my life".
Midway, Brodeck moans (yet again) that he's the wrong person for this task
I must confess to being totally at a loss.
I've been charged with a mission that far exceeds my capabilities and my intelligence.
I'm not a lawyer.
I'm not a police officer.
I'm not a storyteller.
The present account, if anyone ever reads it, will prove I'm not: I keep going backward and forward, jumping over time like a hurdle, getting lost on tangents, and maybe even, without wishing to, concealing what's essential.
Alas, Claudel conceals nothing, essential or otherwise: he spells out absolutely everything, in this bluntest of allegories.
He unfolds his stories fairly well, even with all the back and forth and piecemeal filling in of background, but ultimately it's all much too obvious.
Worse yet, it's all simply too dark and ugly, all black (most of it) and white, with only Brodeck a shade of gray.
(The 'white' elements are Brodeck's family, his 'simple' mute wife and his adorable innocent little daughter, Claudel making it way too easy for himself here.)
The Anderer's persona -- and reasons for coming to the village and stirring up this hornet's nest -- are also annoyingly allegorically freighted
When he returned to the village Brodeck found: "after the war, we all seemed to go back in time", and:
Everyone's taken a few steps backward, as if human history has given man a violent kick in the ass and now we have to start over again almost from scratch.
Indeed, there is only a superficial appearance of civilization left to the world Claudel presents, the villagers' basest instincts constantly bubbling to the fore.
Man is an abomination, Claudel tells and shows us; worse yet, there is practically no hope for him.
Obviously he means to show that in remembering rather than suppressing memory there might be hope -- and yet the final act he leaves for Brodeck is also one of effacement.
There's a lot of intriguing material here -- it's a very discussion-friendly book -- and much that is quite powerful, but, while it is well-written, it is also quite a muddled piece of work that tries to pack way too much in.
Of some interest, but Brodeck's Report is hard to recommend.
- M.A.Orthofer, 30 July 2009
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Other books by Philippe Claudel under review:
Other books of interest under review:
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About the Author:
French author Philippe Claudel was born in 1962.
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© 2009-2012 the complete review
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