June 2012

Madeleine Monson-Rosen


The Investigation by Philippe Claudel, translated by John Cullen

Philippe Claudel has already been compared enough to Kafka to make it sound like cliché (see his earlier novel Brodeck). But it's apt enough, if superficial. Claudel's cityscape resembles Kafka's urban scenes in their simultaneous familiarity and weirdness. But the city of The Investigation, in an adroit translation by John Cullen, is so absolutely consistent in its perversity that Claudel's novel moves away from the fantastical and grotesque world of Kafka's fictions toward somewhere both more familiar and more comic.

The city resembles a modern metropolis, but then departs wholly from the laws, written and unwritten, that govern the workings of any city. Regular where a city should be confused, and absurd where a city should be logical, this unnamed city, designated like everything else in this book by title and function, not by name, is thorough in its intransigence. Even its climate seems designed to frustrate: "During the first part of the day, the air is springlike, even summery, but inevitably, toward the end of the afternoon, there's snow, followed in the evening hours by a frost that chews up your face, and then, to cap things off, down comes the night, too soon, falling like a guillotine blade." The perversity of this city and everyone in it is strict: everything that can go infuriatingly, insanely, absurdly wrong does.

Although the protagonist arrives in this city on a train from somewhere else, once he steps off the train, which he does as this novel begins, all external relations between the city and the external world disappear. Once the Investigator enters this city, everything in it sets itself against him: there is no promised car to retrieve him at the station and no taxis either. By the time he reaches the gate of the Enterprise, the object of his investigation, it is so late that he is refused entry, on the principle that no investigator would arrive at that late hour: "An Investigation into the suicides at ten o'clock at night -- do they think we're that stupid?" asks a seditious Watchman who has mistaken the rumpled, wet, and frozen Investigator for someone else. "I'm convinced he is actually a Downsizer. Another one. We get one a month. And every time there are layoffs right and left. Those people have no morals -- you realize that, don't you?" While the Watchman is convinced by the Investigator's increasingly abused appearance -- over the course of The Investigation the poor protagonist is starved, interrogated, deprived of his identification, and, among many other indignities, sustains two apparent concussions -- the Investigator is, in fact, one of "Those people," the ones who control the Enterprise, as well as the hotel in which the Investigator is forced to lodge.

Yet from his arrival to the conclusion of this narrative, a story that evokes Job in its accounting of mundane misfortune, the Investigator never actually assumes his role, never begins his investigation into mysterious suicides that have occurred among the Enterprise's workers. The only exception is a dream the Investigator has while unconscious, in which the bodies of the suicides are arrayed before him "one next to the other: twenty-two bodies plus one urn, containing the ashes of an employee who'd been cremated." He questions these remains, and the urn is the first to answer "Thus far the Investigator had somewhat neglected the urn, but when he asked who had died from gas, it was the urn that replied, and the fact that a funeral urn began to speak didn't strike him as the least bit absurd"; absurd perhaps not only because the urn speaks in a dream but also because the Investigator has experienced only absurdity in his attempt to carry out his investigation.

Imagining a fictional world stripped bare of everything but the functional, The Investigation also bears some resemblance to J.M. Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians. As Coetzee's Empire and its Third Bureau figure a globalized center that militates against, as well as exhausts the resources of, its margins, so The Investigation's Enterprise looks something like Google crossed with Halliburton. When the Investigator tries to determine what exactly the Enterprise does, he is answered with a list both manifold and wry: "The Enterprise is active in so many areas," a Guide eventually explains, "communications, engineering, water treatment, renewable energy, nuclear chemistry, oil and gas production, stock analysis, pharmaceutical research, nanotechnology, gene therapy, food processing, banking, insurance, mining, concrete, real estate, storage and consolidation of nonconventional data resources, armaments, humanitarian development, micro-credit aid programs, education and training, textiles, plastics, publishing, public works, patrimony preservation, investment and tax counseling, agriculture, logging, mental analysis, entertainment, surgery, aid to disaster victims, and obviously other fields I'm forgetting!" It goes without saying that nothing on this list bears any relevance to the Investigator's case, nor the narrative itself. This Enterprise doesn't need to make or sell anything to maintain absolute control of the multitude of lives and livelihoods dependent on it.

Roughly two thirds of this amusing and affecting novel amount to a chronicle of misfortune. Indeed The Investigation makes you believe that the best the reader can hope for is that the poor, compromised, barely-human Investigator will choose to go on, despite his suffering. Yet as it concludes, both the Investigator and the reader are forced to confront the conditions that underlie the Enterprise's existence, conditions which are stark, to say the least. Despite its far-from-realist mode and its parable of life under late capitalism, The Investigation is no allegory. It's too sharp and too funny. And despite its setting in a city that deliberately evokes all cities and no particular city, The Investigation resists every tendency toward ponderous moralism, instead marking each apparent injustice with a light, but never unsympathetic, touch.

The Investigation by Philippe Claudel, translated by John Cullen
Nan A. Talese
ISBN: 978-0385535342
240 pages