By Philippe Claudel
Nan A. Talese/Doubleday
A small Alpine community appears to have recovered from a great war in which young men from the village died. Most did not return. But one did. Brodeck survived a prison camp by degrading himself, crawling on all fours while wearing a dog collar to amuse the guards. He writes reports now, chronicling the changing of the seasons and noting the passage of time.
Time passes very slowly for the village, as well as for Brodeck, his wife, daughter and the woman who raised him as her own child. It's not quite a time of healing. It is a time when the townsfolk give the impression they are not ready to live again.
They don't have much of a choice, though, when a stranger arrives. A larger-than-life figure with a donkey and a horse, who follows people around. Then comes "the thing that happened", when the stranger is killed. The leaders of the village charge Brodeck with writing a report to explain what happened, to justify any actions taken. Brodeck also resolves to write his own version, keeping it secret.
Weaving back and forth in time to capture miniature portraits of townsfolk and the horrors Brodeck and his family survived, Claudel's novel builds in intensity as the cruelties of both individuals and mob rule are revealed. The end is an enormous revelation that brings into sharp focus what a human being is capable of doing. Brodeck, more appropriately titled Brodeck's Report in the UK, is written in a realistic fashion that gradually turns into a fairy tale, a legend, something that couldn't possibly be true. As a work of art, Brodeck is a fabulous accomplishment.
Claudel's earlier works, including the novel By a Slow River and the film I've Loved You For So Long, also explore the fallout of deliberately caused tragedy. Although they are remarkable works as well, this one packs such an emotional punch at the end that it stands out. No wonder it has been honored with literary prizes in Europe.
Brodeck is a remarkable tale of survival, reasoning and the search for how to understand the human heart when people do things the mind cannot comprehend. This is a story that deserves to be told to as many as will listen, so they promise themselves to never do what others have done, and to recognize what Hannah Arendt called the "banality of evil" in the every day.
© 2010 All Rights Reserved Reviews at CompuServe Books and reprinted with permission