15 November 2015

Philippe Claudel: Le Rapport de Brodeck | Brodeck (2007)

Philippe Claudel's Les Âmes grises (Grey Souls) is in part a criticism of war, but Le Rapport de Brodeck (simply translated in English as Brodeck) is a scathing indictment of it. Although the novel doesn't specifically give the time in which the novel is set we know it's after the end of the nineteenth century, and although there are a number of oblique references to World War II – the persecution of minorities, occupation of foreign territories, the group leader with the forename Adolf, the concentration camps, Pürische Nacht, even the use of the German language – no country is mentioned by name. Similarly, although a number of geographical locations are given and have Germanic names, they are all fictional creations, and the village where virtually all the action takes place is unnamed: Claudel certainly has Nazism in mind, but by being unspecific he's broadening the canvas, making general remarks about human behaviour.

As with Les Âmes grises, the narrative shifts easily between different times, filling in blanks in the present by returning to the past, often with chilling graphic descriptions. Slowly, relentlessly, a picture emerges from the chaos, only to be kind of turned on its head at the end, although more of that later.

The narrator is Brodeck, the man who's asked – or more accurately told – to write a report absolving the villagers from blame for (en masse) killing l'Anderer, or the outsider, the strangely dressed man who doesn't give his name and who comes to live in the village after the war. I use the expression 'en masse' advisedly because throughout the novel references are made to the nature of crowd behaviour, such as when Brodeck says 'The truth is that the crowd itself is a monster': the crowd dehumanises, infantilises. Brodeck socialises, but stays away from the crowd, although he, er, has his own 'family': Fédorine, the old woman he came to the village with originally; his wife Emélia; and his daughter Poupchette, who isn't biologically his but a product of Emélia being raped when he was in the camp.

The crowd doesn't like outsiders, and there are for a time two crowds in the village: the villagers themselves and the group of invaders who come to stay there temporarily just to let the locals know who's boss now. Brodeck has experienced their murderous behaviour before, which is why he fled from the town where he was being educated and retreated to the village where he had lived before, and Emélia flees with him. But both Brodeck and Emélia are outsiders, or Fremdër as the invaders call them, and Fremdër are not unlike Jews. As an outsider, Brodeck (but strangely, not Emélia) is one of the two people the villagers decide they must be cleansed of. So Brodeck joins the long train journey to the camp, where he'll be made to wear a dog collar and walk on all fours, clean out the shit troughs and get covered in it, but hang on for two years until the end of the war, only retaining his sanity and his will to live by the thought of returning to the village to rejoin Emélia.

But Emélia has been raped along with three other outsider girls and left for dead, and although she survives she's lost her senses and her voice. Perhaps. Brodeck writes his report, the mayor Orschwir (one of Claudel's frightening authoritarian figures like Mierck and Desinat in Les Âmes grises) who's ordered him to write it throws it in the fire after reading it: what is important is forgetting, forgetting that l'Anderer's horse and mule have been killed, forgetting l'Anderer himself has been murdered because he was the Other, because he was different, because he could read into the villagers' inner selves.

But Brodeck can't forget, either what men do to others or what he's done to men. Or women, such as the young woman and her baby who died in the stinking train going to the camp, from whom Brodeck and Kelmar took her water so they could survive at their expense. Anyway, he's done his job and it's time to go, time to leave the village.
So he carries Poupchette off, carries Emélia off, carries Fédorine off while pulling the cart along, and when he looks back the village has gone, as if it never existed. Retake – this is beginning to sound like La Moustache. He carries all three and pulls the cart and the town ceases to exist? What? Earlier on in the book Brodeck has said – very oddly – that it suits Orschwir to pretend that Emélia and Poupchette don't exist. And then towards the end of the novel Brodeck tells the story of the poor tailor Bilissi, a story which Fédorine told him when he was a young boy and which takes the ground from under your feet, leaving you with nothing to cling to, what you saw before you perhaps wasn't entirely real. The tailor's mother dies first, and then his wife, and he picks up his daughter, sings her a song, feeds her and kisses her without noticing that his lips have met the air, and his daughter has never, ever existed. Yep, Claudel too takes the ground from under your feet. Dazzling, terrifying.

My other post on Philippe Claudel:

Philippe Claudel: Les Âmes grises | Grey Souls

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