July 2009

Stranger in a strange land

By Philippe Claudel
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Americans have become acquainted with best-selling French author and director Philippe Claudel through his award-winning film I’ve Loved You So Long in which Kristin Scott Thomas plays a woman re-entering society after serving time in prison. Claudel’s superb new novel Brodeck also features a protagonist who is thrust back into the world after a horrific experience.

Brodeck takes place in an unnamed European village in the aftermath of a terrible, but unspecified, war. Brodeck, who earns his living writing reports for a government bureau, has returned to the village after two years in a concentration camp. A stranger arrives in the village where his odd manner and habits draw suspicion. After he exhibits his drawings of the village, he dies in a mysterious accident. Brodeck is told to write an authorized account of the stranger’s death, essentially a whitewash of the incident, which provokes Brodeck into secretly writing a description of his own troubled past.

Brodeck’s first line is an assertion of his innocence in the stranger’s death. But as he tries to unravel the mystery, his own life story pushes to the foreground. Though Brodeck has grown up in the village, he arrived there as a fremder (a stranger) and, during the war, he was interned in a camp where his life depended on almost a complete negation of his humanity. With his return to the community, he worries that his survival only reminds the villagers of their collective guilt, and their fear of the stranger proves to Brodeck that, again, they will sacrifice one they think is not their own. 

Brodeck has a fairy-tale quality, but it is of the Brothers Grimm variety, filled with dark woods, wandering strangers and mysterious feasts. The village is peopled with rural archetypes, but their actions—some cruel, some kind—have a disturbing specificity. Although there are occasional mentions of modern machines, the lack of a precise time or location adds to the air of the unfamiliar. Like other explorers of the 20th-century experience—Elie Wiesel, J.M. Coetzee, Franz Kafka—Claudel is a novelist of ideas and abstractions, but he weaves a powerful spell with this engrossing tale.

Lauren Bufferd writes from Nashville.

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By Philippe Claudel
ISBN 9780385527248

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