“Brodeck” by Philippe Claudel (2010), 313 pages – Translated by John Cullen
‘Brodeck’ takes place in a small village on the French side of the French and German border. But ‘borders are only pencil strokes on maps’, and in many ways these villagers have more in common with the people across the border than the French.
I highly anticipated reading ‘Brodeck’ (published as Brodeck’s Report in England and other places). A few months ago I watched the excellent movie “I Loved You for So Long”, written and directed by Philippe Claudel, which was one of the high points of my movie watching of the last few years. ‘Brodeck’ has received uniformly good reviews, won the top French literary prize (the Prix Goncourt in 2007), and was the much praised focus of the Not the TV Book Group. This is one of those rare times where my expectations were not disappointed.
‘Brodeck’ has the quality of a folk tale more than anything else. The villagers are presented vividly but with a sense of timelessness. Most of the scenes in the book could have occurred hundreds of years ago, with only a few objects such as a typewriter giving the more recent time away. Since Brodeck’s regular occupation is to write down descriptions of nature, he goes for long walks on the paths through the hills near the village, and it is very easy to believe that cars have not been invented yet. The novel is filled with scenes and descriptions from nature which evoke a primal atmosphere.
Early in the novel, the leaders of the village give Brodeck the task of writing a report on the murder of a strange fellow in their village called “The Anderer” (The Other), since Brodeck is the only one in the village who writes for a living.
Time within this novel shifts constantly. We might start a chapter in the present, and without our realizing it the narration shifts to something that happened years ago or visa versa. At first this was somewhat disorienting, but I soon realized that the time shifts give the novel the aura of an eternal folk tale. This is one of those novels where the force of the story keeps growing so that by the last one hundred pages I was hanging on to and treasuring every sentence.
- “To be innocent in the midst of the guilty is, after all, the same as being guilty in the midst of the innocent.”
This novel deals with large and ever-prevalent issues of good and evil. I won’t go into any more detail than that. Framing the tale as a folk tale, Claudel shows us how even recent events fit into the ongoing struggle to be human and to be good. Reading this novel was a completely satisfying experience, and I am happy to have discovered an excellent writer who I was unfamiliar with.