Translated from the French by Emily Greenhouse

 

Philippe Claudel’s novel Brodeck’s Report (MacLehose Press), winner of the 2010 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, is the tale of a man who returns to his village on the Franco-German border after the war. Working to restore his daily rhythm after years spent in a prison camp, Brodeck’s uneasy peace is disrupted when a stranger rides into town. The villagers call this flamboyant newcomer the Anderer – the other – and tensions surrounding his arrival mount until he is savagely murdered. Brodeck is commissioned by the villagers to write a report about the incident. The account he produces – the fable-like novel itself – moves beyond the mere ‘report’ of the title; Brodeck’s Report becomes the tale of a community struggling to come to terms with its past and a testimony to the dark legacy of occupation and war. Philippe spoke to Emily Greenhouse about fiction, history and guilt – and never taking anyone’s advice.

 
EG: Brodeck’s Report is a novel of electrifying darkness, with a chilling message to bear about human nature. Man seems to be a beast doomed to forget past mistakes. After the horrors of the last century – the real heart of Brodeck, it seems to me – is it possible to write a book that escapes genocide?

PC: I don’t think that my book is as dark as you say it is; in any case, I don’t see it exactly that way. But what you say interests me.

For artists working after 1945, I think it’s impossible to escape the question of genocide, and that, in one way or another, all fiction that’s even remotely serious addresses head-on, or indirectly, the capacity humanity gave itself for overwhelming self-destruction, in Auschwitz and elsewhere. You’ll notice that I’m speaking of humanity and not of just a small part of it; I think it would be too simple to ascribe the entire responsibility of the terror to the German people.

The modern novel can’t sidestep or ignore the idea of evil on an industrial level. We were born in the century of the refrigerator – which conserves food, helping us to stay alive – and of the gas chamber, which grossly destroys life; in the century of a science that progressed considerably in order to save lives, and that simultaneously reached perfection in the art of exterminating them.

Technology was harnessed to serve man’s two essential drives – life and death. It did so with great lucidity, and so we now are the children of paradox, creating and surviving within it.

Through Brodeck, a writer himself, you touch upon the artist’s obligation to speak truth or bear witness. Do you feel the same weight of this responsibility in writing screenplays as in writing novels?

I think I work a bit differently for film to how I do for books: curiously, I’m more tragic in my books. At the moment, I’m in the middle of shooting my second film, which is more of a comedy, and I’m having a lot of fun. Novels, on the other hand, are where I push human situations to the extreme. It seems to me that fiction is like a nerve fiber that I try to stretch as far as possible – so I can hear the nerve’s moans and its vibrations, before making it explode.

Writing a screenplay doesn’t require the same immersion; it’s during filming that I’m involved 300 percent. On the other hand, when I write a novel, I live in the novel as though in a world or in a house. I don’t leave it: I am there and I cry there, I tremble there, I grow frightened there; I dig and I descend into the caves. Always.

To survive life in the camp, Brodeck was reduced to the stature of a dog, sleeping on the ground amidst fur and urine. You move from calling the character ‘Brodeck-the-Dog’ to Brodeck-the-Dog, without quotes, upon his return to his village, as though this experience changed his very identity. Is this the choice humans must make, in order to stay alive? Is survival possible if we don’t collaborate?

We often survive to the detriment of others, and in many instances of survival, there are moments of cowardice, abandonment and betrayal.

I’m not saying that this is always the case, but it’s true that I also wanted to examine this impurity in the survivor. At the same time, I think Brodeck clearly explains the fact that agreeing to play the dog doesn’t tarnish him. The tarnished one is the torturer, who ceases to be human upon taking the role of executioner.

Don’t forget that, in the end, it’s the force of love that allows Brodeck to endure the worst.

Your novel reminded me of the historian Henry Rousso’s notion of the French ‘Vichy syndrome’, this ‘passé qui ne passe pas’. As Rousso writes, France has long maintained a myth of national resistance: Chirac was the first French president to officially acknowledge French responsibility for the deportation of Jews – in 1995, over fifty years later. Do you think France can move beyond this past, and absolve itself of guilt?

This book is constructed upon the problem that we French, notably, have with this painful, shameful memory. Brodeck is a falsely historical novel, as it examines the duty of memory which caused controversy several years ago in France, when I wrote this book: Is it necessary to ask forgiveness for the crimes committed in the past? Must we forget them, or must we inscribe them in the yearly cycle of atonement?

Born in Lorraine and based there still, I’ve been sensitive from an early age to the theme of borders, and to the reality of the painful memory, the wounded memory. All around my home are military cemeteries, forests that once were battlefields. It’s clear that my writing has light – or darkness – thrown upon it by all these young phantoms.

Hans Fallada’s Every Man Dies Alone, which has a similar subject, sees absurd comedy in the human condition – and, finally, hope in the men who resist. What would you say to readers who find that your books lack this kind of hope?

I agree, but at the same time disagree. Brodeck’s themes are certainly grave and tragic. That’s undeniable. But as in all my books, it seems to me that humanity is the real hero, in its miserable, cowardly terrible dimension, but also in its formidable potential for love. To believe that Brodeck’s Report lacks hope is to ignore all that motivates the main character in his return to life: it is love that makes him live, survive, come back and carry on. The end might be an escape, but it promises the reconstruction of a better, though different world, like Aeneas’s flight from enflamed Troy, which led to the birth of Rome: another crack at utopia,..

What authors – novelists and screenwriters both – do you most admire?

There are so many that it’s very difficult to say. I have great admiration for the cinematographic and theatrical work of Christopher Hampton. I read Ian Mc Ewan, Bret Easton Ellis, Ismail Kadaré with great interest. I love the books of Edward Abbey, I. B. Singer, Leonardo Sciascia, Emilio Lussu, Friedrich Dürenmatt books. I’m a reader enthralled by Julien Gracq. As for film, my greatest admiration goes to Stanley Kubrick, who is the great genius of the second half of the twentieth century.

What is your advice for aspiring young writers?

Never listen to any advice. Follow only the passion and the pull of your desire.

 

Photograph by Val In Sydney

Two Poems
First Story