Category: Claudel Philippe

History, memory, complicity: German Fantasia by Philippe Claudel (tr. Julian Evans)

Is it really so long since I read Brodeck’s Report? I haven’t read Philippe Claudel nearly enough. His latest book in English translation is a cycle of five stories set in 20th century German, exploring themes of history, memory and complicity.

The opening ‘Ein Mann’ sets the tone. It sees a German soldier abandoning his post. We don’t know his name, and the landscape through which he travels is also largely anonymous. He’s been an unthinking cog in the machinery of the Nazi regime: “Was he guilty? Guilty of having obeyed? Or guilty of not having disobeyed? All he had done was follow. Did that make him less responsible than the others?”

Now that he sees what he has participated in, he wants to get away – he’s not really thinking about where, as long as it’s somewhere else. The ending of the story suggests, however, that he can’t outrun the past.

Recurring throughout the book is the name of Viktor, who may or may not be the same character each time, but always seems to have been an active participant in atrocity. In ‘Ein Mann,’ he’s in charge of the soldier’s concentration camp. In ‘Irma Grese’, though, he’s an old man in a care home in the 1990s, albeit with a past in the regime. 

Irma herself is a girl who’s been given a job in the care home, part of which is specifically to look after Viktor, who happens to be the mayor’s father. Irma resents the job, and resents the pitiful Viktor. She takes out her frustrations on him by eating his food and mistreating him other ways. In an inversion of ‘Ein Mann’, the Viktor of ‘Irma Grese’ is victim rather than oppressor now. But, as Irma will find, there are no real winners in these stories, not in the face of the cruelty that flows through the book.

Elsewhere, Claudel explores the fallibility of memory. In ‘Sex und Linden’, an 90-year-old man looks back on his adolescence, and a time when he was seduced by a beautiful woman who kept whispering another man’s name (‘Viktor’, as it happens). It all sounds a bit too good to be true, and along with the man’s happy memory is a sense that the golden past can’t be recaptured, if it was there in the first place. 

‘Die Kleine’ is the story of a young Jewish girl who has been rescued from a concentration camp, and taken to start a new life in a new household. She pictures the elements of her old life wrapped up in a handkerchief, but this memory is precarious. First, she recalls the old elements in a different way each time. Later, they start to lose their vibrancy:

The handkerchief, folded and tidied away in her brain, held many things but they were things that no longer moved, the way that clothes that have lost the bodies that used to inhabit them still keep a trace of their shape and their smells, but not much. Everything the little girl kept in the handkerchief reminded her of what had happened before, and over there. But over there was gone. There was only here. 

The story which I found to lay down the greatest challenge to the reader was ‘Gnadentod’  – not in the sense of ‘difficulty’ but in its degree of confrontation. In this story, Claudel imagines a version of history in which the German artist Franz Marc did not die in 1916 at Verdun, but was instead placed in an asylum and subjected to a ‘mercy killing’ (to translate the story’s title) by the Nazis in 1940 due to his mental health. 

Then again, maybe that’s just the official line. In one startling sequence, Claudel has Marc’s real-life biographer defending his scholarship in the face of the story’s prevailing fiction. This is a stark experience because we’re seeing fake history being created before our eyes and paraded as the truth.

In various ways throughout German Fantasia, Claudel illustrates how history and memory can be distorted (deliberately or otherwise). He also suggests that his characters are caught in the shadow of German history, no matter where or when they are. 

Published by MacLehose Press.

Philippe Claudel, Brodeck’s Report (2007/9): Not the TV Book Group


In the wake of The TV Book Club, four book bloggers (Lynne Hatwell of Dovegreyreader Scribbles, Simon Savidge of Savidge Reads, Kirsty of Other Stories, and Kimbofo of Reading Matters) have launched their own online reading group, which they’re calling ‘Not the TV Book Group’. The group will run fortnightly on Sundays for sixteen weeks, with discussions being hosted on each blog in turn. The schedule is:

7 Feb – Philippe Claudel, Brodeck’s Report

21 Feb – Ali Shaw, The Girl with the Glass Feet 

7 Mar – Susan Sellers, Vanessa and Virginia

21 Mar – Jennifer Johnston, The Illusionist

11 Apr – Mary Swan, The Boys in the Trees

25 Apr – Neil Bartlett, Skin Lane

9 May – Jon Canter, A Short Gentleman

23 May – Octavia E. Butler, Fledgling

I thought it would be interesting to join in, which I’ll try to do for all eight books (though, of course, we’ll see how well I manage!). For now, though, let’s turn to the first selection, Brodeck’s Report by the French writer Philippe Claudel (very well translated by John Cullen). I’m hoping to make this review more reactive than usual, so I’ll be looking out for commentary elsewhere online and maybe updating this post as the day goes on (and, of course, commenting on the actual discussion when it goes live). First of all, here’swhat I thought:

My view

One night, in a remote village somewhere in post-war Europe (Claudel is deliberately vague about place and time in the novel), there is a murder. The victim is known only as ‘the Anderer‘ (‘the Other’), a colourful stranger who arrived in the village from who-knows-where, and immediately drew fascination (gradually turning to suspicion) with his unusual dress and manner.

The Anderer has been killed by men of the village, who ask Brodeck — a villager who didn’t witness those events, but has attended university and so (the logic goes) can write — to produce a report on what happened, so there can be an authoritative statement. Alongside his report, Brodeck writes a second account, which forms the text of Claudel’s novel; this longer account covers not only matters concerning the Anderer, but also key events of Brodeck’s life — including his time in a concentration camp.

Brodeck’s Report comes garlanded with many glowing quotes from newspaper reviews; I’m not quite as thoroughly enthusiastic about the novel as they appear to be, but I still think it’s a very good book. Claudel’s central theme, I think, is that, given the right circumstances, anyone could be party to monstrous acts; there are strong parallels between the villagers’ treatment of the Anderer, and Brodeck’s treatment by the camp guards — and even Brodeck himself is not entirely innocent. This is a powerful demonstration of how even apparently ordinary, decent individuals could come to do the worst.

One of the most striking things about Brodeck’s Report is Claudel’s construction of the novel. Instead of taking a linear approach, he moves backwards and forwards between times and events — sometimes even within the same passage — yet never loses his control over the narrative. As the threads swirl around and move inexorably towards their conclusions, the story itself becomes a kind of net, mirroring the way that the characters become snared by events, prejudice, and social pressures. Claudel’s prose (and, of course, Cullen’s translation) succeeds at more detailed levels, too; there are some very well written, highly affecting scenes (often concerning some of the plot’s most harrowing events).

I doubt I’d have read Brodeck’s Report if not for this book group (actually, never mind that, I wouldn’t even have heard of it) — but I’m glad I did, and I look forward to seeing what others have made of it.


11.10 – The discussion is now underway at Dovegreyreader Scribbles.

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