One day shortly after the end of the second world war, a stranger arrives in Brodeck's village on the Franco-German border. It is a place traumatised by the memory of conflict, its inhabitants want to forget. But three months later the Anderer (the "other"), with his "enormous trunks, his embroidered clothes, his mystery, his bay horse and his donkey", is dead, savagely attacked by persons unknown.
Or, more properly, by everyone and no one. Himself an incomer, Brodeck is commissioned by the other villagers to write a report on the incident. He says he will do it the only way he knows how, which is in the first person. And he begins by pointing out: "I had nothing to do with it". The narrative we read is a version of this report, kept taped to the belly of Brodeck's partner to protect it from prying eyes. As such, it has uncertain status.
Uncertainty is a major theme of Claudel's novel, which is both fable-like and documentary in style. While it is concerned with difference and intolerance as abstract, universal themes, Brodeck's Report is also a historical novel about a camp survivor (Brodeck) and the effect of Nazism on a specific place, assumed to be a German dialect-speaking part of Alsace Lorraine.
Many such assumptions have to be made, as much is left unspecified. At one level this uncertainty allows the reader's share to blossom, as we fill in the gaps; at another, it is Claudel's wise stratagem for dealing with the acute demands placed on issues of fact and witness by the Holocaust as a subject. The uncertainty also puts us in the same position as Brodeck, as he struggles to understand what it means to name something. The certainties asked for by the official report are undercut by the capacity of the shadow text to deal with lacunae and contradictions.
Professionally, Claudel himself knows how to straddle uncertainty, being a screenwriter and professor of literature at the University of Nancy, as well as the author of several prizewinning novels. With I've Loved You So Long, starring Kristin Scott Thomas, he recently moved into directing, too. A reader might expect one who has become so at home in the media world to have slackened as a stylist, but far from it - in John Cullen's deft translation, Claudel's writing is lucid and passionate.
One aspect of his literary skill is his assignment of a whole package of experience to a single powerful metaphor. Part of Brodeck's personal history, being shipped off to a death camp, is referred to as the Kazerskwir: "Those were two years of total darkness. I look upon that time as a void in my life - very black and very deep - and therefore I call it the Kazerskwir, the crater. Often, at night, I still venture out on to its rim."
This crater is revealed in staggered glimpses. Once German troops arrived, Brodeck was one of two fremder (foreigners) subject to voluntary ethnic cleansing by the village elders, and that is why he ended up in the camp. He survived largely through employing a species of self-abasement in front of the guards. Characterising himself as "Brodeck the dog", he wore a collar and leash and was willing to "strut and turn round in circles and bark and bark and hang my tongue out and lick their boots".
His reasons to go on living were Fedorine, an old woman who rescued him when he was a war orphan, and Emilia, his lover, who both wait for him back at the village. Fedorine is a superb character, the perpetual immigrant, a Mother Courage with a cart who speaks in "a strange babble drawn from several languages"; Emilia is a beautiful former student Brodeck met while at university in Germany. She has a child, Poupchette, who is not Brodeck's daughter, but the product of gang rape by German soldiers and members of the village while Brodeck was away.
Brodeck's love for Poupchette is one of the redeeming features of a brutal world. The villagers do not expect him to survive and return. Chief among them are Gobbler and Orschwir, two sly peasants straight out of Dürer. They are both members of the sinister "Brotherhood of the Awakening", which meets in the back room of Schloss's inn. Above the room is the bedchamber in which the Anderer is murdered.
With his otherworldly expression, kindly smile and outlandish robes, the Anderer is an enigma. A flamboyant artist who comes to the village to draw its inhabitants, he stands in for all strangers, for the unknown in all its guises. His drawings see into the villagers' souls, it is said. While some think he is the Devil, there are also suggestions that he is Christ, the scapegoat who has to be killed to redeem men's sins. Claudel seems content to let his true identity, like so much else in this excellent novel, remain on the edge of understanding.
• Giles Foden's new novel, Turbulence, is published by Faber in June
Информация, которую он выдал… Она резко подняла голову. Возможно ли. Информация, которую он выдал.