Thursday, October 28, 2010

Not your grandmother's Holocaust novel: A review

Way back in this blog's infancy (for those unfamiliar with the developmental stages of my blog: as reference I'll offer that at 6 months I've decided my blog has reached its adolescence), I wrote a book review and promised to keep my reader's abreast of books I found to be of particular note. Then none of the books I've read in the last few months really felt worthy of reviewing. Either I didn't enjoy them that much, enjoyed them but didn't think I could really recommend them to others, or they were so mainstream that anyone who hadn't read them probably had done so intentionally and with difficulty.

Much of my reading for the better part of the last year has been shaped by a book club I attend monthly at Idlewild Books ( If you're ever in New York, this is a delightful independent bookstore that's worthy of a visit. And I'm not just saying that because the owner plies me with wine, pita chips, and lively discussion once a month. I've had mixed reviews of some of the books since I've joined the club, but they've all shared the link in common that they're books I would not have picked up and read on my own. However, this month's book was the first one I truly enjoyed. Or rather "was incredibly impressed by", as "enjoyed" is probably not the right word when describing a book that depicts such a horrifying version of humanity.

At any rate, the book is called Brodeck, or in some translations Brodeck's Report, and is one of the few novels by the French director and screenwriter Phillipe Claudel that have been translated into English. Claudel is apparently best known for his film I've Loved You So Long starring Kristin Scott Thomas. Although I haven't seen the movie, judging by IMDB synopsis, its looks to be about the same level of bleakness of subject matter. Full disclosure: for readers not looking for a rather dark read, this is probably not the book for you. It's set in an unnamed European village, and while the time and place are never really specified, it makes enough oblique references (and some rather direct ones) to clearly point to the Holocaust.

The novel is told in first person and in a very non-linear fashion. Brodeck, a villager who seems to skirt the outside of village society, is charged with writing an official report to absolve the other villagers of the murder of an outsider. In the process of writing the report, he confronts his own guilt and his experiences while a prisoner at a concentration camp. Because the time, while fairly obvious, is never specifically mentioned, it gives the novel and its atrocities an air of universality. During the discussion we would try to avoid destroying the illusion by referring to things as "quasi-Nazis" or "concentration camp-esque." The book at times reads like a parable, but also has elements of Garcia Marquez type magical realism and even fairy tales. There are many episodes where animals are used to make a point, although seldom are these stories or vignettes ever resolved or reconciled with the rest of the story. I'm not sure the last sentence makes it clear that I consider that a positive thing, but believe me, I do. The book is very complex and thoughtfully composed; even ends that are left loose are done with intention.

Overall, I recommend this book highly. Also, I promise to read more quality books (maybe even some happier ones) in the future. That way, I'll have something to recommend to you before my blog reaches its dotage.


  1. Hmmm... sounds deep and powerful. A good combination normally. I will have to think about keeping that one on my watch list - though I do try not to read things that are too depressing.

  2. Yeah, after that one, I'm going to read something a little perkier! Although something about the weather getting colder makes me want to read Tolstoy or Gogol, for some reason...

  3. That actually sounds really good! I don't read many books that have been translated. You mentioned that some translations of this book have different titles. I would be interested in comparing different translations and see if the story has a different effect. Unfortunately, you can only read a book for the first time once. I'll keep this book on my "to read" list, along with the other 67890 books. :)

    I think I figured I would start a book review blog because I love talking about books I liked AND books I hated... and it's been awhile since I had a blog of any sort.

  4. Tara you should start a book blog! I miss your writing so. It's been ages since we exchanged letters!