by Philippe Claudel, TRANSLATED BY JOHN CULLEN MacLehose Press/Quercus, 288pp, £18.99 Review by ALLAN MASSIE
"MY NAME IS BRODECK AND I HAD nothing to do with it." It's an arresting first sentence. The "it" with which our narrator had "nothing to do" is an atrocious murder. The victim is an outsider – the Anderer or "other" – a strange man who came to this isolated village on, apparently, the borderlands between France and Germany, a few months after the end of what must be the Second World War, though this is never precisely stated, and the words "French " and "German" are not used. We are in uncertain territory, though I imagine the village is in the Vosges mountains.
The village is as much an imaginary creation as the town below Kafka's Castle, though in both cases links to the real-historical world are evident.
The Anderer, who arrives oddly dressed and leading a horse and donkey, is at first made welcome in the inn, as a sign of normality returning after the war. But it is not long before he becomes an object of suspicion. What is he there for? Is he a government spy of some sort? In every way his presence is unsettling, and when it seems that he has seen into the twisted souls of the villagers, and knows their darkest secrets, he has to die.
Brodeck "had nothing to do with it", but, as one of the few educated men in the village – he went to university before the war – he is commissioned, ordered really, to write a report of the affair. This is not surprising. Writing reports for the "Administration" on aspects of the natural environment is his business. But Brodeck is an outsider too. He came to the village as a child on a little cart with his old nurse, Fedorine, who speaks a language no-one understands, and he now lives with Fedorine, wife Emelia (to whom something unspeakably horrible has happened) and a beloved daughter, Poupchette.
His story is appalling. He left the capital, abandoning his university studies, when riots and a pogrom of "all those designated as Fremder" broke out, and brought Emilia back to the village. But then the war came and the village was occupied by the enemy – the "Fratergekeime", and they identified him as "Fremder".So he was sent to what is unmistakably a Nazi death camp. There he learned fear, suffered humiliation, becoming "Brodeck the dog" led around on all fours, with a chain round his neck, by one of the guards. After the Fratergekeime defeat, Brodeck came back to the village to find his name on the war memorial.
This is a novel about fear, cruelty, hysteria, evil, redeemed only by the protective love Brodeck has for his family, and perhaps by the pangs of conscience experienced by a few of the villagers. The priest who has become a drunkard, burdened by what he has been compelled to hear in the confessional, tells Brodeck that he now knows God does not exist, "or He has gone away for ever, which amounts to the same thing. So there it is: we are alone." Brodeck himself reflects that "To most of the people in our village, God is a distant being composed of books and incense; the Devil, on the other hand, is a neighbour whom many of them believe they have seen at one time or another." Perhaps he has taken over the village, as he ruled the world of the camps.
It may be that the Anderer, this unknown and gentle stranger, who came into the village with his horse and donkey, might have displaced the Devil. Never identified, he may be interpreted as a returning Christ, who, like Christ, had to be killed, because he knew men as they are, and saw into their souls, which was too much to bear. But readers may interpret him as they choose.
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. In France it won the Prix Goncourt des Lycens. The reviewer in Le Monde called it, simply, magnificent. And so it is.