Brodeck By Philippe Claudel; translated by John Cullen. Nan A. Talese; 336 pages A deft English translation of Claudel's outsider tale

Brodeck, by French novelist and filmmaker Philippe Claudel, is a story about a provincial village that echoes a universal and eternal theme—the plight of the outsider. Claudel’s insightful prose, translated gracefully by John Cullen, renders the tale both literary and deeply philosophical: In an unnamed time, a stranger, “with his big trunks, his embroidered clothes, his mystery, his bay horse, and his donkey,” arrives in a small European village of 400 inhabitants. Settling in for what appears to be a lengthy stay but never divulging his name, he is dubbed “De Anderer,” or “the other.” The villagers don’t know what to make of the Anderer’s old-fashioned apparel and peculiar behavior but welcome him nonetheless. He quickly becomes an object of hatred, however, when his paintings of village life remind everyone of horrendous crimes they committed during a recently concluded war. As the village priest explains the Anderer’s work to the story’s eponymous protagonist: “That man was like a mirror, you see.…They each saw their reflection in him.…And mirrors, Brodeck—mirrors can only break.” After the villagers murder the Anderer, Brodeck is asked to write a report whitewashing their actions. He soon reaches the terrifying realization that doing otherwise could actually imperil him, because “to be innocent in the midst of the guilty [is], after all, the same as being guilty in the midst of the innocent.” As a result, he consents to write the sanitized official report. However, he also sets down the truth in a secret account that doesn’t merely relate what befell the Anderer; in probing the villagers’ mentality, he reveals how his own perceived status as a foreigner caused them to turn against him during the recent war, when he was sent to a death camp and survived only by becoming “Brodeck the Dog” and acting like a pet to amuse the guards. Yet this novel offers far more than an oblique commentary on Nazism. Claudel’s Brodeck is about the imperative of probity during even the most trying circumstances, and it offers stark observations on the predicament of the ostracized. Perhaps the most profound example—both true and sad—is the recognition that constant migration might forever be the lot of the “other.” A resigned Brodeck muses that “maybe there can only be departures, eternally, for those like us.”

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