I chanced upon this book when I was reading about past winners of the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. Brodeck’s Report (Brodeck, A Novel in the US) won this award in 2010, but for some reason, it had never crossed my radar. When I saw that the author also wrote the film I’ve Loved You So Long, I put down all my other reading to pick up this novel. If you haven’t seen I’ve Loved You So Long, you are really missing out. And if you have seen it, you know exactly what I mean.
Brodeck’s Report did not disappoint me. Yet, I hesitate to recommend it to all. (I think I’m suffering from being accused of reading only heavy or depressing books, an accusation that is not true. Well, not 100% true, anyway.) How do I even describe this book?
Reading it was like being in a dream. I wasn’t exactly sure where the setting was. A tiny isolated village somewhere in the fluid-boundary zone of Europe, around the Germany/France border or the Austria/Hungary border. The time is post WWII, although this, too, is fluid as we follow the meanderings of the narrator’s memory as he tells us his story. The characters are sometimes real, but hard to pin down. They felt sort of ephemeral to me. And at times I felt I was reading a fable or allegory.
But at the same time, I couldn’t put this book down, and the messages it carried were very real and clear.
Quick plot summary: Brodeck has been charged with writing a report about the events surrounding the death of a nameless character he refers to as “the other.” The people who have ordered him to write the report have actually murdered “the other,” and they intimidate Brodeck into cooperating. However, as a means of resistance, Brodeck writes two reports, and the book we are reading is the “true” one. Or so one would think. Make of that what you will; at any rate, Brodeck starts his narrative with this disclaimer:
“I’m Brodeck and I had nothing to do with it. I insist on that. I want everyone to know. I had no part in it, and once I learned what had happened I would have preferred never to mention it again, I would have liked to bind my memory fast and keep it that way, as subdued and still as a weasel in an iron trap.”
Ah yes, but it is terribly difficult to “bind memory,” and in the midst of writing his report, Brodeck reminisces about his time in a concentration camp, from which he has recently returned. Resisting his captors was not an option for Brodeck at the camp. Instead, he performed the role that the sadistic guards demanded of him: he acted, quite literally, like a dog. This he did in order to survive and return home to his beloved Amelia and Fedorine.
As it turns out, Amelie has not been left unscathed in the village as she awaited Brodeck’s return. And it isn’t just the invading soldiers who are culpable; local villagers are to blame as well.
As Brodeck writes his reports, it becomes obvious to him and to the reader that he is in danger. The villagers who murdered “the other,” and who have ordered Brodeck to write his report, do not trust him. “The other” was murdered because he held up a mirror to each person in the village. Now we fear Brodeck will meet the same end for shining a light on the villagers’ crimes. Philippe Claudel is a master at building tension; I found this book to be a literary page-turner as I read furiously to find out what would happen.
Questions of who is to blame, who is complicit, how to survive, what we choose to remember, whether we even can choose to remember, how history becomes “fact,”–all this and much more is in this intriguing novel. It would generate a great discussion for a book club, but I’m not sure everyone would enjoy reading it. If heavy subjects don’t put you off, and if you’re drawn to atmospheric writing, then you’ll probably like it. Whether you read it or not, do not miss the film I’ve Loved You So Long. And bring your tissues.