Saddle up, kind hearts. I have a winner. Like most good things, this book came to me from a good friend who is in a position to read books that I would normally never see. Knowing something of my eccentric tastes it literature, my friend sent me an urgent dispatch, saying I should purchase it immediately. So I did and here we are.
Brodeck’s Report meets all the requirements of qualifying as a beautifully-crafted French novel (translated by John Cullen) that not only has the power to enthrall, but also posses some significant questions about humanity’s condition: are we blessed, doomed or merely irrelevant?
From the first page, Brodeck’s Report reflects that “timeless” quality that we associate with fables and fairy tales. Claudel’s characters move through a Brothers Grimm world in which the inhabitants of a small village are identified by their occupation: Schloss, the innkeeper; Diodeme, the teacher; Orschwir, the butcher; Cathor, the pottery-mender. The time is uncertain, and although there are distinct references to WWII atrocities (concentration camps) and 20th century technology (Brodeck owns an ancient typewriter), the novel’s small village seems timeless — a world where the necessities of existence (food, shelter, procreation) follow the ancient rituals that attend seasons. Change only comes to Claudel’s village with invasions and war.
Brodeck, the reluctant protagonist, has been given the dubious honor of writing a report regarding a mysterious incident that occurred at the local inn – the murder of a stranger who had recently arrived in the village. Since Brodeck owns an old typewriter (the only one in the village), he has been ordered to write an account of the crime. He is reluctant to do so. As time passes and the inquiries about his report become more impatient, the reader begins to sense that something sinister has occurred in the past.
As Brodeck becomes increasingly paranoid, he begins to write about events from his own past, events so horrifying he has attempted to erase them.
Eventually, we learn that Brodeck is not a native of the village. Although he has a family (his mother, wife and daughter) and has spent most of his life in this village, he is aware that his neighbors consider him — like the stranger who was recently murdered at the inn — “Anderer” meaning “he came from over there.” In other words, the villagers consider both Brodeck and the murdered stranger someone “who is among us, but not of us.”
Brodeck came to the village as a child and grew to become a valued member of his community. In fact, when he is an adult, the village elders send Brodeck to a nearby city where he will learn skills that might prove useful in the village. The homesick Brodeck yearned to return to the village, and his beautiful wife Emelia, and finally he does so. However, he is troubled by events that he had witnessed in the city where he had seen people attacked, called “Fremder,” and driven from their homes. Eventually, he learned that “Fremder,” like the word “Anderer,” was an offensive word used to describe “unwanted foreigners.”
For several years, Brodeck is blissfully happy in his village. Then, war erupts in the city and eventually an army appears. An officer orders the mayor to “cleanse” his village or suffer the consequences. Bewildered and desperate, the mayor consults the town elders and together they create a list of “Fremders” — eccentrics, misfits, people who are not “native to the region. Brodeck is one of them.
Brodeck’s three years in the prison are filled with unspeakable horror. Although he survives, he is reduced to a bestial state and witnesses crimes that will haunt him for the rest of his life. Indeed, he is a participant in shameful acts. He remembers that his guards force him to walk naked on all four like an animal and taught him to repeat the mantra, “I am nothing.”
When the war is over, Brodeck returns to the village to discover that his wife is now a mute due to a brutal gang-rape, and that she now has a daughter, Poupchette — a child that Brodeck readily accepts as his own. Slowly, he rebuilds his life despite that fact that he knows that his neighbors have previously cast him out as a scapegoat.
So we come to Brodeck’s task — a report that gives an objective account of how (and why) the stranger at the inn was murdered. Brodeck “sees” the crime, but did not participate in it. He describes how the “Anderer” arrived in the village with a pampered horse and donkey, acquired lodging at the inn where he ate and drank to excess. Initially, he is accepted and a number of the villagers attempt to befriend him. The Anderer listens, but says little, and as the weeks turns into months, the villagers realize that he makes careful notes of all he sees and hears. At length, when the visitor shows no inclination to continue his journey to other towns and cities, the village begins to resent his presence.
On the night of his death, the Anderer treats the village to a kind of party complete with lavish food and wine. He even distributes a kind of personal “gift” to his guests .... a drawing that manages to capture the essence of each individual. Far from being pleased, the villagers destroy their paintings and their mood turns dangerous. Who is he? Why is he here? Is he judging the people of the town? Is he condemning them? When the villagers draw their knives and surround the Anderer, Brodeck withdraws, becoming a witness.
Brodeck’s Report is a dark parable. There is much here that could be termed “Kafkasque” since the novel’s atmosphere is thick with a kind of sinister threat, as though something unspeakable was about to happen. In addition, much of the action reminds me of the films of Michael Haneke, the German/Austrian director, who takes great pleasure in presenting dark tales of betrayal and moral decay (“The White Ribbon”).
Despite the sobering message behind Brodeck’s Report, this novel is probably a masterpiece. Admittedly, it is bleak, but it is also redemptive, for it affirms some essential goodness in mankind, something that rises despite overwhelming odds, and goes on. Brodeck does that. Like Aeneas fleeing Troy, Brodeck takes up his aging mother and his mute wife and his daughter, and he walks out of the village. He will start again somewhere ... where, doubtless, someone will call him “Fremder.”