PHILIPPE Claudel is the author of two very fine, but very different, novels – Brodeck’s Report and Monsieur Linh and His Child, both of which I reviewed admiringly here.
BY Philippe Claudel
MacLehose, 224pp, £16.99/£12.99
A filmmaker as well as a novelist, Claudel is intellectually restless, apparently always eager to try something new. It’s different in life, apparently, since he still lives in the village in Lorraine where he was brought up, but in his work he is always striking out in new directions. The leap from the bitter-sweet tenderness of Monsieur Linh to the sour satirical comedy of this dystopian fantasy, a novel in which none of the characters has a personal name, all being identified only by their function, could hardly be bigger.
The Investigator, an employee of The Firm, arrives by train in the unnamed city. There is no car to meet him. Sleet is falling. After waiting some time, he crosses the square, enters a bar and asks for a grog. Impossible, he’s told. Yes, the barman knows how to make it, “but the drink doesn’t appear in our computer listing, and the automated till would refuse to register a charge for it”. This is the mildest of the disconcerting surprises to await him.
Time keeps shifting, distance too. When he eventually arrives at The Firm’s Gatehouse, he is refused entry. His supposedly luxury hotel is terrible. The stairs are uneven, the floors are all wrong, his room is bleak and the window bricked up. In the morning he is refused breakfast, though the room is full of people, said to be tourists, eating heartily. He is interviewed by The Policeman, one moment suspicious, the next friendly. The Investigator’s task is to enquire into a remarkable number of suicides, but everyone he speaks to denies any knowledge of them.
He is subjected to a succession of humiliations, as if nasty tricks were being played on him. He loses his clothes, is then grotesquely dressed in the garments which have been substituted for his own, and is finally stripped naked but for a thin hospital gown. Eventually “he no longer gets surprised … After all, life is made up of these impossible, inexplicable moments, which we struggle to interpret, and which might not mean anything else at all.”
There are moments when he wonders if he is dead – which indeed, he may be. At long last he encounters the old man whose portrait is everywhere on the walls of The Firm, and even on the key-ring he has been given. The is The Founder, an old man with a broom. Perhaps he is God, perhaps he is the Devil. It doesn’t really matter because he seems to be as mystified as the Investigator himself is by this time. At the end he is surrounded by all the nameless actors in this bitter comedy, all of whom seem “a little embarrassed; like him they are “the victims of a farce in which they had played their part, without trying too hard to get out of it, just because it’s much less trouble that way”.
One can read this novel as a satirical portrait of our unnatural technologically advanced modern world, in which individuals are stripped of their individuality. Alternatively, one may read it as a grim foretelling of the time when the technology we rely on goes wrong or escapes our control, as one day it may well do, as indeed, it seems to have done in the incomprehensible world of global financial transactions. Or it may simply repeat the message that is as old as the Bible, which warns us that “all is vanity”.
Claudel‘s debt to Kafka is obvious. The Investigation follows the same course as The Castle, with the elements merely updated. Some may ask whether it is worth doing what Kafka, and in only slightly different form Beckett, have already done supremely well. Yet variations on a classic theme need no justification, if themselves done with sufficient imagination and adroitness. And, after all, Kafka himself was in debt to predecessors, among them Swift.
Moreover, though the message is bleak, the novel is written with such relish, inventiveness, imagination and brio, that it is consistently entertaining. One remembers that Kafka thought of himself as a comic novelist, and would often, when reading his work aloud to friends, have to break off because laughter had overcome him. Claudel is frequently very funny too. Life is often horrible, but humour helps us to endure it, and laughter is often the best, and indeed the proper – because most human – response.
Or as Byron put it, “And if I laugh at anything,/ ‘tis that I may not weep.” In Brodeck’s Report and in Monsieur Linh and His Child, love was the antidote to life’s cruelties. Here it is laughter.