Over the last two years I’ve had the pleasure to read three Philippe Claudel novels, all of which I really enjoyed. His style is simple but poetic and the subjects he tackles in each book all hold up under prolonged discussion. I’d say there are two things that each of the three books share – a subtlety in engaging with their thematic project or question and a reliance on the idea of narration as a means to catharsis.
In Les Ames Grises (2003) the narrator is literally bursting with the need to tell his own painful story, yet that very trauma keeps him from tackling the subject head on. Instead he winds around a related story, just as powerful, as a means to find the words he himself needs. I felt this technique was quite successful, mainly because it was subtly done. La Petite Fille de Monsieur Linh (2005) is also about an individual wrestling with trauma, but in this story Claudel looks at how we invent our own external narratives as a way to survive a difficult past.
It goes without saying that I had high hopes for his newest work, Le Rapport de Brodeck*, and I was in no way disappointed. Like the other two books, this novel also examines how an individual with a traumatic past weaves a narrative. And much like Les Ames Grises, there are two narratives at work in Le Rapport de Brodeck. Although I think it is safe to say that this newest work achieves its goal with more elegance and subtlety than the either two. I can’t help seeing it as a culmination of the stylistic and thematic development found in his other books.
But getting to the more important stuff – what is Le Rapport de Brodeck about? In essence, Claudel takes the horror story of the 20th century (the Holocaust) and recreates it on a tiny, nearly anonymous scale. By anonymous I mean that he keeps his setting vague and doesn’t go about shouting the names or labels of his protagonists. Brodeck, for example, is never described as Jewish, the men who come to occupy the village are never called Nazi’s and even the two countries (clearly France and Germany) remain unnamed.
By doing this, Claudel removes the specificity from the event, making it much easier (and frankly, much more frightening) to see how what happened during the Holocaust is actually a timeless and location-less phenomenon. And in fact, the central event of the story occurs a few years after WWII has ended, which I took as a grim reminder that the world has not finished with horror.
So although the book purports to be a story we’ve all heard or read before, it becomes more of a prediction, a warning. This isn’t historical fiction, but a bleak meditation on the mediocrity of the human soul. There is no hero in Le Rapport de Brodeck, no one who completely overcomes their own powerful instinct for self-preservation. And Claudel seems to be asking whether this is reason enough to condemn us all.
I could hardly put this book down, but I found it quite disturbing in the absolute. Claudel takes great pains to portray humanity in shades of gray – even Brodeck doesn’t escape this notion of mediocrity. Which is something I approved of. At the same time, I felt Claudel’s spectrum a little lopsided. While he does provide examples of pure evil, the pendulum never swung to the highest point in the opposite direction. That isn’t an answer I can accept. I don’t believe there are hordes of brave heroes and heroines, but selfless, noble people do exist and will continue to work against the kind of world Claudel describes.
For those of you who do not read French, the rights to Le Rapport de Brodeck have been sold in both the UK and the US, so this book will appear in English at some time, hopefully soon.
*The title can be translated as Brodeck’s Report and the novel centers on a report that narrator Brodeck must write about a horrible event which occurred in his small village.