by Phillipe Claudel
translated by John Cullen
Another one from the Shelf of Guaranteed Literary Fulfilment (this is an actual shelf in my home, although it hasn't been actually labelled as such. Yet.) this book found its place there after my review of Claudel's more recent novella, Monsieur Linh and his Child, drew lots of comments from admirers of this winner of the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. Both books deal with the legacy of war and violence but whereas the title character in Monsieur Linh was most obviously an example of trauma brought about through conflict, Claudel uses the title character in this novel to look at themes of persecution, isolation and otherness.
A little as in the recently reviewed Death Of The Adversary, Claudel keeps many of the details hidden in this novel. A time period isn't specified but we can guess, the location too isn't named but seems to be somewhere in Alsace-Lorraine where a German dialect is spoken by the French population. This dialect is important for a couple of reasons: firstly because it highlights the way in which a country's borders are shown to be the arbitrary things they are when two countries find themselves at war and two regions on either side of that imaginary line, their age-old histories linked, have in common 'legends, songs, poets, choruses, a way of preparing meat and making soups, an identical melancholy and a similar propensity to lapse into drunkenness.' Claudel retains many of this dialect's words, explaining their sometimes ambiguous meaning, or rather his narrator Brodeck explains. Brodeck has been assigned the task of writing an account of the events that lead up to the murder of 'the Anderer' (or 'other'), a visitor to the village. He has been assigned this task despite thinking himself unequal to it - 'To be able to tell stories is a skill, but it is not mine. I write only brief reports on the state of the flora and fauna...I am not sure my reports are still reaching their destination, or, if they are, whether anyone reads them.' We needn't worry about that lack of confidence for Brodeck is a fine writer and there are even some extraordinary moments where his usual subject matter is perverted by the fact that this is a village that has recently been through a war and that he is a man who has been made to suffer more than any other resident of that village. The River Staubi for example that runs nearby, usually a place of animal life and movement became something else entirely at moments during the war when 'creatures other than fish were to be found floating in it, blue creatures, some of them still looking a little astonished, others with their eyes firmly closed, as if they had been put to sleep by surprise and tucked up in pretty liquid sheets.'
In putting together his account of the 'Ereigniës' - the thing that happened - Brodeck introduces us to the increasingly sinister inhabitants of his village. The very fact that so many of them were together on the evening of the murder and Brodeck absent highlights his isolation within the community, something only heightened by the job he has been assigned by them; a task that can only increase the sense of fear and guilt with which they already regard him. And what of the Anderer, what kind of threat did he pose when he wandered into their village '...dressed like a character from another century, with his unusual beasts [a horse and donkey] and his imposing baggage, entering our village which no stranger had entered for years, and moreover arriving here just like that, without any ado, with the greatest of ease. Who would not have been a little afraid?'
In a telling episode, when it becomes clear that the Anderer will be staying for a while rather than passing through it is decided that a proper welcome should be organised with a banner, music and some speeches. It is the banner with it's ambiguous message that gives us a taste of the tension that exists.
"Wi sund vroh wen neu kamme" can mean "We are happy when a new person arrives." But it can also mean "We are happy when something new comes along" which is not the same thing at all. Strangest of all, the word vroh has two meanings, depending on the context: it can be equivalent to "glad" or "happy", but it can also mean "wary" or "watchful", and if you favour this second sense, then you find yourself faced with a bizarre, disquieting statement which nobody perceived at the time, but which has been resounding in my head ever since; a kind of warning pregnant with small threats; a greeting like a knife brandished in a fist, the blade twisting a little and glinting in the sun.
The Anderer doesn't do anything other than observe and make notes and enquiries into this village's life and its inhabitants are antagonised by this being held to account. He may not have ridden in on the donkey itself but there is something Christ-like about his arrival, impact and sacrifice. The village priest, a man driven to drink by the impact of war and all the filth that has been confessed to him over the years, doesn't make such an explicit connection but provides a useful image for Brodeck to consider.
That man was like a mirror, you see. He did not have to say a single word. Each of them saw their reflection in him. Or maybe he was God's last messenger before He closes up shop and throws away the keys. I am the sewer, but that fellow was the mirror. And mirrors, Brodeck - mirrors can only be smashed.
Brodeck's project may be about the Anderer but it is also really about himself and his own tragic history in this community. Having come from 'a country which had never appeared on a map, a country no tale had ever evoked, a country which had sprung from the earth and flourished for a few months, but whose memory was destined to weigh heavily for centuries to come' he has always been something of an outsider himself. When war came to the village with its desire to cleanse the area of undesirable elements Brodeck stood no chance. Sent of to a camp, from which he wasn't supposed to return, Brodeck managed to survive physically only by abasing himself, becoming 'Brodeck the Dog', kept as a kind of pet by one of the guards, led around on a collar, and crucially fed scraps of food that kept him healthier than his fellow internees. Spiritually he was sustained by the memories of his surrogate mother Fedorine and lover Emilia to whom he has promised to return. When he does he is haunted by the void of those two years away, something which has its own unique word in this dialect.
The Kazerskwir - that was because of the war: I spent nearly two long years far from the village. I was taken away like thousands of other people, because we had names, faces or beliefs different from those of others...Those were two years of total darkness. I look upon that time as a void in my life - very black and very deep - and therefore I call it the Kaserskwir, the crater. Often, at night, I still venture out on its rim.
This is a novel that bursts at the seams with themes but one last thing to mention is the way in which the legacy of conflict extends beyond Brodeck's personal experience. For those that survived the camps, those that escaped the attempt by neighbours and friends to wipe them from memory there is not only the burden of survival-guilt but the fear of uncertainty in the future.
We can never meet the eyes of other people without wondering whether they harbour a desire to hunt us down, to torture us, to kill us. We have become perpetual prey...I think we have become and will remain until the day we die, a reminder of humanity destroyed. We are wounds that will never heal.