“My name is Brodeck and I had nothing to do with it.”
The opening line of Philippe Claudel’s novel is as stark and affecting as that of any classic hard-boiled noir, but BRODECK'S REPORT is much more than a crime narrative, or even a narrative of crimes. Set in a remote village somewhere in the German-speaking part of France, in the wake of ‘the war’, it opens with Brodeck being commissioned by his fellow villagers to tell the truth of what happened to the ‘Anderer’, the ‘Other’, a mysterious outsider who arrived in the village with his horse and donkey, took up residence over the village inn, and was subsequently murdered by the villagers.
Brodeck, who writes reports on the locality’s flora and fauna for the Administration, is one of the few educated men in the village capable of recording what happened. That Brodeck is himself an outsider, who arrived in the village as a child, a refugee in the wake of an earlier war, gives his tale an added poignancy. The story of the novel, however, runs parallel to the report he is compiling, and is in effect Brodeck’s autobiography. The murder of the Anderer is simply the wedge that cracks open a haunting tale of love and loss, of pogroms, death camps and war-time atrocities.
A Professor of Literature at the University of Nancy, Philippe Claudel is a prize-winning author in his native France. He is best known outside of France for writing and directing the recent Kristin Scott Thomas movie, ‘I’ve Loved You So Long’. The narrative of BRODECK'S REPORT, however, is anything but linear. Instead Claudel favours an elliptical approach, drawing the reader into the horrific truth at the core of the story by utilising time-loops, segues and digressions, flashbacks within flashbacks, all the while building towards a climax with the weight of the accumulating narratives pushing the tale forward inexorably.
The combination of circuitous narrative and allusive setting may prove problematic for some readers. The village’s locality is never pin-pointed, and nor is the historical period. ‘The war’ is frequently referred to, but never specified, and while there are modern references – to trains, say, or robots – the bucolic village setting, and its lack of machinery, could easily mean that the story is for the most part set in an earlier century. Brodeck, meanwhile, is deported to the death camp because he is a ‘Fremder’ – a ‘foreigner’ – rather than for any of the justifications the Nazis employed.
But Claudel has bigger fish to fry than the uncovering of any one particular atrocity, or even Brodeck’s harrowing personal testimony. Man’s inhumanity to man may sound like a thesis worthy of a sixth-form school essay, but it is one worth repeating, especially when Claudel pins it to a timeless backdrop that allows parallels to be drawn with Srebrenica, say, or the Sudan, or any other conflict, past, present or future, where individuals can be characterised as less than human for the purpose of eradicating them and their kind from the face of the earth.
The overarching theme may be epic, but what gives BRODECK'S REPORT its haunting quality is Claudel’s ability to make intimate the details of losses suffered, his skill at exposing the flesh-and-blood humanity of not only the victims, but also that of the killing machine. Beautifully written, in a terse yet lyrical prose that is a credit to the translator, John Cullen, it is a superb novel, equal parts Kafkaesque disorientation, Primo Levi’s devastating accounts of the killing camps, Italo Calvino’s post-modern playfulness, and Jean Genet’s unflinching eye for the sewers through which the blood of our histories flow. – Declan Burke
This review first appeared in the Sunday Business Post
“Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.