Claudell’s Goncourt-winning fable about dehumanization is among the finest works of Europe’s 21st century and on par with Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” as snapshot of personal and social debasement.
A rural villager named Brodeck is charged by his local mayor to recount the life and times of a quizzical, thoughtful stranger – the “Anderer” – who seems to materialize in town from out of nowhere. Enchanting at first, the outsider gradually falls prey to parochial suspicion, envy and hatred. Brodeck’s narration of the Anderer’s fate allow him to sketch the causes and horrid consequences of a just-ended nationalist war, most of which he spent in a Dachau-like death camp where he called himself only “Brodeck the Dog.”
Claudell breathes life into the universality of evil by putting flesh on a metaphorical realm whose events compress two millennia of European bigotry and xenophobia. The anti-Semitism of Nazi Germany is the most direct springboard, though the flavors of Stalinism, Robespierre, Rwanda and Balkans are also evident.
The parable derives potency by defying time. Brodeck could as easily exist in 1530 as 1930, which gives dread palpably colossal reach. Essential to the fable’s morality is its insistence that Holocaust man, at home with ignorance, is forever his worst enemy. “We’re wounds that will never heal,” says Brodeck. Man, he believes, will conjure menace and rationalize atrocities simply to obtain refuge from the unknown, the different, the impure, the foreign. He will instantly overturn and discard humanity and pounce on his fellows. He is forever an inch from becoming “formerly” human.
“They weren’t monsters,” Brodeck says of his fellow villagers, “they were peasants, craftsmen, farm workers, foresters, minor government officials; in short, men like you and me.” But seen through Brodeck’s remarkable and poetically wounded eyes, man’s banal descent into the abyss has a silver lining that in time turns to gold. Deftly translated by John Cullen, the novel is appropriately dedicated “To all who think they’re nothing.”