Spring must be here, because when we were on the Heath yesterday my yellow wellies were wonderfully redundant. In spite of the recent rain, the Heath was dry, the grass long, the air heavy with pollen, and the sunshine bright, and I rather wished I’d flung off my boots and run around barefoot.
Emily’s Walking Book Club was discussing Brodeck’s Report by Philippe Claudel. This novel came out in 2007 – not so long ago – and yet already it has all but disappeared from our cultural radar. Nobody in the book club had even heard of it, but, pleasingly, everyone was very glad to discover it. This is exactly what I want to do with the book club, and with this blog: bring people’s attention to really good books, which, for whatever reason, have been somewhat forgotten. Often these books are quite old, but Brodeck’s Report shows that even a decade can bring relative obscurity.
The novel is set in a village somewhere around the Franco-German border, at a time which is hard to pin down: the blurb says ‘post-war’, and it certainly could be read as taking place after the Second World War, but Claudel is deliberately vague about this, and – as the book club noted – the only technology in the book is a typewriter, people travel on foot or by horse and cart, so it certainly has the feel of an older, somewhat mythical world. The book begins with our narrator, Brodeck, being tasked to write a report. His job is writing reports about the wildlife surrounding the village, collecting data on things like flowers and foxes. Only this particular report is on the murder of the Anderer, ‘the other’. This mysterious, flamboyant stranger recently arrived in the village: he was a man of few words but who talked to his animals, he wore strange clothes, carried old books, was always making notes and sketches of village life … and the people of the village have just killed him. In his account of the murder, Brodeck reveals a great deal more: both about his own life – including his survival of a concentration camp, which he calls the kazerskwir, or ‘crater’, and also how the village has struggled to survive enemy occupation.
It is easy to read Brodeck’s Report as a novel about the Holocaust. Brodeck’s Jewishness is alluded to, although most of the time he, and the other people who were taken to the camps, are referred to as Fremdër – which Claudel explains means ‘foreigner’, but:
… is ambiguous, as it can also mean “traitor”, or more colloquially, “gangrene”, or “filth”.
Claudel has chosen, however, not to make his story specifically about the Holocaust. His vagueness about time and place gives the story something of the feeling of a myth, fairy tale, or parable. When we were discussing it, many members of the book club referred to Rwanda, the current migration crisis, and also the book’s religious connotations. ‘Is the Anderer,’ someone put forward, ‘a Christ-like figure, who has to die to absolve the village for its sins?’
The point is that making the book only about the Holocaust and post-war France would be letting the rest of the world off the hook. Claudel’s novel examines what happens to humanity when it is pushed to the edge – and while the Holocaust is a powerful instance of this, it is not the only one.
Claudel also resists making the characters entirely good or bad. Brodeck’s first sentence tries to absolve him of any responsibility for the murder of the Anderer:
My name is Brodeck and I had nothing to do with it.
But we discover it’s not quite so straightforward as that. Even a man as good as Brodeck has done things of which he is ashamed. There is a terrible moment when he was crammed into the wagon being taken to the concentration camp and he drinks a flask of water belonging to a sleeping young woman with a baby, thereby saving himself and causing their deaths. He still feels terrible guilt for this act:
…this perpetual feeling of inhabiting a body I stole long ago thanks to a few drops of water.
Just as no one is wholly good, no one is wholly bad: the innkeeper who is complicit in the murder of the Anderer tells Brodeck of his haunting grief over the death of his own infant son. One of the most sinister figures in the book is the commandant’s wife at the concentration camp, or: ‘Die Zeilenesseniss “the woman who eats souls”’, who is ‘inhumanly beautiful’. Every day one of the prisoners was chosen to be hanged. The woman never missed a hanging, and she always came with her baby in her arms:
The baby was always peaceful. He never cried. If he was asleep, she would awaken him with small, patient, infinitely gentle gestures, and only when he opened his eyes at last, waved his little arms, wiggled his little thighs and yawned at the sky would she signal to the guards, with a simple movement of her chin, that the ceremony could begin. One of them would give the stepladder a mighty kick and the body of the “Du” would drop, his fall abruptly cut short by the rope. Die Zeilenesseniss would watch him for a few minutes, and as she did so a smile would appear on her lips. She missed nothing and observed everything: the jumps and jolts, the throaty noises, the outthrust, kicking feet vainly reaching for the ground, the explosive sound of the bowels emptying themselves, and the final immobility, the great silence. At this point the child would sometimes cry a little, I dare say not so much from fright as from hunger and the desire to be suckled, but in any case his mother would plant a long kiss on his forehead and calmly leave the scene.
It is such a disturbing image, this beautiful mother and child – clean, peaceful, calm, happy – watching this terrible ritual death. Claudel juxtaposes birth and death elsewhere in the novel too, with Poupchette, the joyful child of Emilia, Brodeck’s wife, born of a terrible act which has all but killed Emilia.
In Brodeck’s Report, we get everything: birth and death, good and evil, the very edges of humanity and all that comes in between. It was a very difficult (if also rewarding) book to discuss because there is so much in it, and all the ideas and issues are so big and bound together: guilt, responsibility, survival – huge questions of morality. But I think what makes the book so brilliant is that while it asks difficult questions, and scrutinises our behaviour so cleverly, it is not all bad and all bleak: Claudel shows us that however much evil there is in us, there is also – always – some good, some love, and some hope.
In other news, I hope you might like this piece I wrote for the Guardian about a very inspiring book club in a prison. And there was also this piece for The Spectator about why books are dangerous, and mustn’t be underestimated: I suppose they’re two articles looking at the power of books from opposite ends of the scale.