Norman Geras, who blogs at this site, is a retired academic, Professor Emeritus in Politics at the University of Manchester. His books include The Legacy of Rosa Luxemburg, Marx and Human Nature, Solidarity in the Conversation of Humankind and The Contract of Mutual Indifference. He is currently completing a monograph on the concept of crimes against humanity. In this post he reviews Philippe Claudel's Brodeck's Report.
Norman Geras on Brodeck's Report by Philippe Claudel
In inviting contributors to do a piece for this series, I ask them to write about a book that they 'like or admire'. My own contribution on the present occasion has arisen in a different way. It's not that I don't admire the book I've chosen to write about. I do - very much. But had I been asked by someone else to write something for a series of this kind, there are many other books I would have thought of ahead of it. How the piece comes about is this. I recently read Brodeck's Report by Philippe Claudel and was very impressed by it but found it hard to explain why. I therefore turned to some of the reviews, to see what they had to say. The three reviews I looked at all gave a fair account of the book and an accurate impression of both the content and the feel of it, making clear in each case that the reviewer rated it highly; but they didn't spell out sufficiently what it is about Claudel's novel that gives it its force. The reviewers liked Brodeck's Report but didn't say why it was a good novel, in what exactly its goodness consisted. That is my perception at any rate.
This set up the following challenge for me: to try to supply what they had failed to and answer the question which had led me to the reviews in the first place. Why was I impressed by Philippe Claudel's story? I abuse my position as editor of the Writer's Choice series to make this week's slot available to myself for attempting to say what the qualities of Brodeck's Report are that make it the excellent book it is.
I will not go over the ground amply covered between them by the reviews linked to above in delivering details of the plot, but merely say that Claudel's novel is a literary cousin to the Holocaust memoir and Holocaust novel. While most of the action takes place some time after the narrator Brodeck's incarceration in one of the camps, centring on the village where he lives with his wife and their child, his experience of deportation and imprisonment have indelibly marked him and the way he tells what he has to tell, and it is more generally the case that the events and the atmosphere in the village stand in the shadow of the crimes of that era. I have read dozens of books on the Holocaust, including many from the memoir literature. What about this new novel marks it out, making it a contribution of considerable power?
First, Claudel effects a distancing from what the reader may already know about the Nazi genocide by locating his story simultaneously in and not in 20th century Europe. That is where it must be set; but it is also placed in a mythicized location in which perceptions you might expect reading Primo Levi are clothed in the shape of a dark fairy tale. These are events which we know about, but they have been transposed to a strangely unfamiliar world. The effect is not dissimilar to the one achieved by Art Spiegelman in Maus. There the cartoon form, here a somewhat grotesque milieu, encourages the reader to see with fresh eyes what is by now familiar to her.
Conspiring with this overall approach is the author's way of getting us to take in the inhumanities that were committed in Nazi Europe. Not heavily laden with episodes of barbarity or horror - these are in fact relatively sparse - Brodeck's Report displays a moral imagination astute in its portrayal of the depths to which humankind is capable of sinking, through a handful of signature incidents, each terrible in its implications. The horror is not piled on, but the evocations of man's inhumanity are as telling as they come. They are telling, in particular, on one issue much discussed in the explanatory literature on this subject, since they speak of the non-banality of evil, Hannah Arendt and others who have followed her notwithstanding. A whole large class of perpetrators may be unextraordinary men and women, yet what they turn out to to be able to do shatters the moral universe.
Meanwhile, the backdrop to the playing out of this theme is a setting of great natural beauty, albeit not without a menacing aspect. This, too, serves to highlight what we should already know: namely, that the beauties of nature accommodate every crime - just like that. The heavens did not darken, nor do they ever. Claudel's tale, indeed, against this natural backdrop, highlights the humanity of evil. Though he presents the village's inhabitants each with some bizarre or ugly feature, some unpleasant detail of conduct, so reinforcing the sense of his narrative as a grim fable, they are also recognizably people of the kind we see about us. Their foibles and blemishes make us more attentive to what sort of beings these are, but they are behaviourally related to us beyond all doubt.
At the same time, and in contraflow to this, Claudel keeps always in view the saving humanity of human beings, in that other sense of the word: despite everything, the moral capacities and aspirations of our kind are there at the bleak heart of his story. The most concentrated expression of it I will not give away here (though some of those reviewers do); I will only say that it is to be found in the details of Brodeck's personal story, his family situation; and there are also threads of it, this undying moral attribute, scattered elsewhere over the misshapen human landscape he traverses.
On the fate of one pivotal character, a newcomer to the village, a visitor, the whole of Claudel's novel turns, and this may be seen by some as a rather predictable component of a Holocaust-related fiction. The character in question is the Anderer. He is representative of difference, 'otherness'. He is also, however, the vehicle for a less predictable pair of tropes. These are that in a community intent or embarked upon grave wrongdoing, those who tell the truth are, just for that reason, objects of hostility and potential violence, and those who are merely innocent of any wrongdoing, the virtuous, may also be, and just for that reason, the targets of hatred and murder.
My review, I now see, in trying to provide some of what I thought was missing from the reviews I read in the press, has unintentionally conveyed an impression that Brodeck's Report is rather 'messagey'. That is misleading. The above themes are my excavation of what is to be found beneath the surface of Claudel's book. Its accomplishment is to have rendered them into the form of an original and gripping tale.