Friday, October 16, 2015
Book Review: Brodeck (2007) by Philippe Claudel and Eat Him if You Like (2009) by Jean Teule
Brodeck is set in an alternate reality Europe that mostly resembles Austria or Germany in the 1930s. The title character lives in a small village high in the mountains where he works as a low-level government functionary. As the novel begins, Brodeck is summoned to the town's inn where he learns that almost all the men in the village have murdered a man know only as the Outsider. The men ask Brodeck to write a report on what happened in the town that led to the killing of the Outsider. The narrative now skips back and forth between Brodeck's investigation and flashbacks to his grim and tortured life before arriving in the village.
Claudel's novel is a slightly surreal, fable-like meditation on all the ways people can find to despise and persecute those unlike themselves. The Outsider who ends up being killed is emphatically more symbol (a saint? a holy fool? God?) than a character. He's odd and eccentric, mostly silent, and it feels like he's dropped into the village after an adventure in one of Italo Calvino's fabulist novels. The slightly whimsical nature of the Outsider is offset by Brodeck's back story, which is a litany of some of the 20th century's showcase atrocities--concentrations camps, pogroms, persecution, and total war. Claudel's novel veers towards the didactic from time to time, but he more than makes up for it with some wonderful world-building. His alternative Europe is artfully done, and his detailed descriptions of the village and its citizens are beautifully realized.
No gruesome detail is spared in Teule's novella, but the blood and horror is leavened with black humor and a tone of ironic detachment that makes the savagery and madness on display all the more affecting. Teule doesn't ask us to draw lessons from this historical incident, or even try to understand more than the simplest of motivations behind the attack. He simply shows in clinical detail how a mass of people can turn into not just killers, but brutal architects of pain.The worst thing about the crime is that it reveals how imaginatively cruel the average person can be and how willing they are to put their sickening fantasies into action.
Both novels are in the Premier League of harrowing, and not to be read on a crowded subway train where people are likely to be testy and react badly if you bump into them while your nose is buried in one of these books. And kudos to Gallic Books for bringing out Eat Him if You Like and a raft of other French novels in translation which I'm slowly working my through. Allons-y!