“I had nothing to do with it.”
That’s what the title character says in the opening sentence of Philippe Claudel’s novel Brodeck. And while Brodeck is right, he has been given the task of detailing how the small village in which he lives felt it had no choice but to kill an outsider.
There are several layers of collective guilt in this excellent novel. Although Claudel takes pains to never explicitly say so, the story appears set in a small village bordering Germany after the conclusion of the Second World War. Brodeck spent much of the war in a concentration camp. Something horrible happened in his village while it was occupied. The unusual stranger who appears in town after the war and Brodeck’s return is known almost instantly as De Anderer, “the Other.” When the Other has a showing of the portraits and landscapes he paints while in the village, they seem to hint that he knows the secret behind the community’s guilty conscience.
When the outsider is murdered, the town wants Brodeck to write a report on “the whole story,” explaining why the village acted as it did and so any authority reviewing the report will “understand and forgive.” Translated from French by John Cullen, Brodeck is not the report. Rather, it is the story of writing the report, a story that takes us with Brodeck to the concentration camp, inside what happened in the village during the war and the circumstances surrounding the Other’s murder. Brodeck refers to the last as the Ereigniës, “the thing that happened.”
Yet much of what takes place over the course of the book could also easily be called the Ereigniës. Heavy on symbolism and allegory (some might say too heavy), there is is plenty of guilt to go around in this isolated and insular village. With it, a reader will ponder issues of not just evil and fear but survival, hope and being an outsider. Powerful and well-written, Brodeck is a worthy read.
A great many things have no smell at all, and yet they rot senses, hearts, and souls more surely than all the excrement in the world.
Philippe Claudel, Brodeck