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Philippe Claudel

Le Rapport de Brodeck (Brodeck's Report)

Category: Fiction | Published: 2007 | Review Added: 21-08-2019

Rating: 3 - Worth reading

On the evidence of numerous recent books and films, Germany and especially the Nazi era remain an important subject for French writers and film makers. One example is the 2009 television series Un village français which depicts life in a northern village under the German Occupation. The memory of this occupation may well be one reason for this interest, which is also reflected in Claudel's 2007 novel, even though the word Germany never appears, nor does the word Jew, even though attitudes to minorities and outsiders are the major theme of the work. The only thing specifically German is the occasional use of non-standard German (how close it is to the dialects traditionally spoken in north eastern France I cannot say) within the text. Given the lack of specific historical and geographical reference, it seems appropriate to speak of a transfer of Brecht's alienation effect from the stage to the novel.

The setting of the novel is a village in a small isolated mountainous territory with a powerful neighbour which occupied it during a recent conflict, imposing draconian rules and taking members of certain minorities away to a concentration camp. Even without names, the echoes of Nazi Germany are obvious. Among those removed is the first-person narrator, Brodeck, who managed to survive the camp by humiliating himself to provide sadistic pleasure for the guards. Back home, a somewhat misleading term, as he came from elsewhere and remains an outsider, he is commissioned to write the report of the title because of his writing skills and his role as village archivist/rapporteur. He is to write an account of how another outsider, who arrived from the neighbouring country along with a horse and a donkey, came to be killed when he fell victim to a crowd of villagers.

The real name of the newcomer is not known to the narrator or anyone else. He is referred to as "De Anderer" - the other one. On the other hand, the names of his animals, who are killed shortly before he is, are known: Socrates and Miss Julie. The first name can be understood as a reference to learning and wisdom, qualities lacking and feared by the locals. Strindberg's character Miss Julie commits suicide after she has broken social norms by sleeping with a servant. In this case, the link is less obvious, although there might be a connection in that rule breaking is clearly taboo in the society of the village, with Brodeck himself, as he goes about compiling his report, constantly fearing for his life and at the end of the novel, when he has completed it and handed it over to the mayor, deciding to move away with his family.

When the stranger arrives and takes a room in the village inn, along with stabling for his animals, he is made moderately welcome. Thereafter his activities, wandering the environs of the village, collecting plant specimens and noting things down in his notebook, begin to raise suspicions. Things come to a head when he invites the villagers to the inn promising "portraits and landscapes". Although in no way realistic, these artworks evoke the village's ignoble past enough to cause fury and the subsequent murders, those of the animals taking place on the surely not arbitrarily chosen date of 3 September, the day of the outbreak of the Second World War.

The back cover of the French paperback edition I read compares the novel with the work of Dino Buzzati and Primo Levi. Alongside Hamlet where the main character's revelation of the guilt of others has extremely tragic consequences, I was particularly reminded of the Swiss dramatists Max Frisch and Friedrich Dürrenmatt, whose respective works Andorra and The Visit show the collective failure of a community. In Andorra, an innocent young outsider is stereotyped as a Jew and handed over to foreign forces. Moreover, after the events, the townspeople have nothing to offer but excuses. In Dürrenmatt's play, the old lady visitor, in fact a returnee, promises riches to the town if it kills the man who made her pregnant and then spurned her many years previously. After initial horror at this idea, the mood changes. The former lover is duly killed in a mêc;lée. As in Claudel's novel, it is the collective rather than any individual who is guilty.

It is difficult to decide how much Claudel adds to what can be found in Frisch and Dürrenmatt. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that he is a skilful narrator, the story being told in non-linear manner with the final murder referred to at the very beginning of the novel. The link between the experiences of the first-person narrator and the fate of the murder victim, both betrayed by the villagers, does provide something of an original dimension. Some of the village characters, the teacher with a bad conscience, and the alcoholic priest, are well drawn. Finally, I should point out that the novel understandably won the Goncourt Prize for Sixth-Form students in 2007. In fact, thanks to its gripping narrative, this clearly fictional novel might well confront young people with the horrors of fascism/Nazism more effectively than a traditional factual history.

Stuart Parkes, Malta, August 2019

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