Philippe Claudel wins Independent Foreign Fiction Prize

Boyd Tonkin acclaims a writer and director who brings new light to our darkest hours

The winner of this year's Independent Foreign Fiction Prize is Brodeck's Report by Philippe Claudel. The French novelist - and now film director - shares the £10,000 award with translator John Cullen for the English edition of his work, published by MacLehose Press. His victory, announced yesterday evening at a ceremony at the Royal Institute of British Architects in London, means that Claudel becomes the first French-language author to take Britain's leading honour for contemporary literature in translation since Frédéric Beigbeder in 2005. Claudel's achievement also means that MacLehose Press, a division of Quercus Books founded by the doyen of international publishing in Britain, Christopher MacLehose, has supplied the winner twice in as many years after the 2009 success of The Armies by Colombian Evelio Rosero.

Brodeck's Report is a beautiful, sinister and haunting fable of persecution, resistance and survival. It is set in the aftermath of genocidal war in a vividly etched rural landscape that has all the spine-tingling intensity of a waking dream. Beyond its many virtues, it also represents another sort of first for this award – generously supported, once again, by Arts Council England and Champagne Taittinger. Last year, Claudel (who has won prizes in France and in 2007 saw Brodeck's Report shortlisted for the ultimate Francophone honour, the Prix Goncourt) accepted another sort of accolade from a British jury in London. The novelist and screenwriter from Nancy in Lorraine had made his debut as a director with I've Loved You So Long. In the film, Kristin Scott Thomas plays a woman, released from prison after a long sentence in the wake of a traumatic crime, who struggles with her sister's help to rebuild her life. Much admired across Europe, it won the 2009 BAFTA for the best film not in English. Now, with the Independent prize, he completes a surely unique cross-media double.

Claudel triumphed after a hard-fought final judging session which revealed strong support for several novels on our shortlist: Brodeck's Report; Julia Franck's The Blind Side of the Heart (translated by Anthea Bell); Pietro Grossi's Fists (Howard Curtis); Alain Mabanckou's Broken Glass (Helen Stevenson); Sankar's Chowringhee (Arunava Sinha), and Rafik Schami's The Dark Side of Love (Anthea Bell). The panel this year - novelist Tibor Fischer; IFFP-winning translator Daniel Hahn; BBC journalist and presenter Kirsty Lang; international literature specialist Kate Griffin, and myself – had to weigh the merits of an outstanding selection of books that deserves to be read in all its culture-crossing and genre-hopping diversity.

Claudel prevailed with his hallucinatory story – almost a dark fairy-tale in which Kafka meets the Grimms - of an uneasy homecoming after wrenching tragedy. A survivor of death camps has returned to the village backwater where he grew up as a suspect immigrant. A terrible conflict and brutal occupation has (as we slowly learn) devastated his own family and blighted his memories of childhood in this lovely but menacing spot. In treacherously picturesque wooded hills and valleys – inspired by the disputed borderlands where France meets Germany, but transformed into the backdrop to any vicious war and troubled peace – the marginal man who has come back from the dead faces a further ordeal.

An outsider himself, he must compile a report to whitewash his neighbours. They have persecuted an outlandish, exotic visitor whose subversive presence stirred up yet more guilty rage not long after the iron-fisted occupiers had left. Burdened by survivor's guilt, feeling that the camp inmates who returned are walking "wounds that will never heal", Brodeck now has to connive in erasing another evil. These unheroic, obedient folk have chosen to bury their suffering and complicity on the grounds that – as the village mayor puts it – "People need to forget".

Written with a lyrical but solemn grace to which John Cullen's English does rich justice, this book both is, and is not, a novel about the moral wastelands left behind by the Holocaust and other modern killing-fields. When Brodeck's Report appeared in Britain, Claudel told me that "the real challenge" it posed for him was: "Is it possible to compose, at the beginning of the 20th century, a novel about genocide without making reference to the Nazi genocide?"

His answer steps away from direct history into parable or myth - but in order to cleanse our response of clichés and presumptions, and so refresh our understanding and compassion. "I wanted to work with the intelligence and sensibility of the reader," Claudel remarks. "It was important to me to choose a different focus."

Memory, guilt and renewal have often given him landmarks and signposts during a strikingly varied and non-conformist career. Always at home in Nancy and Lorraine (and repelled by the chic Parisian scene), he happily stayed put after studying there. For 11 satisfying years, he worked as a teacher in prisons. "All the people who came to my lessons were volunteers," he says. "For a teacher, these were the ideal conditions!" Contact with his students inspired short stories, novels and then screenplays. "I gave up all my simple opinions about people, about guilt, about the necessity to judge others," he remembers. Instead, and sharpened by his love for the philosophy of Pascal, he sought to join the two sides of human nature and action that prison so starkly revealed: the "beast" and the "angel". "It's clear to me now that it would have been impossible for me to write a novel like this one or Grey Souls, to make a movie like I've Loved You So Long, if I hadn't been in jail".

Grey Souls (2003), his only other novel yet to appear in English, is another eerily atmospheric study of conscience and responsibility in a context of collective madness. A mystery plot unfolds in another forsaken rural spot not far from the ravages of total war. Here, however, the reference-points are specific: we go behind the front lines during the darkest passages of the First World War in 1917.

Claudel wrote the script for the movie of Grey Souls, directed by his friend and collaborator Yves Angelo. Eventually, he moved up to take a place behind the camera himself. I've Loved You So Long was the poised and heartfelt result. "My constant obsession was just to put my movie camera in the right place and to try to use this camera like a scalpel – for an autopsy of my characters," he explains. "My desire was that the audience forget the camera movements, forget the director, forget the team of technicians, and just see the people on the screen".

When I met Claudel, no one in France had yet asked him an obvious question about the affinities between novel and film: two stories of the hope and anguish of return after dreadful deeds both committed and endured, one set in a densely poetic otherworld, the other in the humdrum environs of middle-class provincial France. "I think the theme of guilt is always present in my novels and movies," he comments. As for homecoming after trauma, "The question is: is it possible to take your place in the world again?"

Brodeck's Report leaves its reader to answer the challenge that TS Eliot succinctly phrased: "After such knowledge, what forgiveness?" It does so with an imaginative grandeur, a narrative zest and – above all, perhaps – a moral passion that turn our discovery of this village of secrets that lies everywhere and nowhere into an unforgettable journey.

As timeless as some legend from Europe's medieval past, as timely as today's reports from any far-flung zone of scapegoating, massacre and reprisal, it also allows us to grasp – as Brodeck does, as he dances with his little daughter, Poupchette – that sometimes "out of horror, beauty and purity and grace are born".

THE ART OF MEMORY: PHILIPPE CLAUDEL IN HIS OWN WORDS

"I wanted to compose a real metaphor for the destruction brought by genocide. The reader understands the background – which may be the Nazi genocide – but at the same time I never write the words."

"I consider that you are a man when, deep inside your brain and your body, you have a memory of the dramas of the past. If you don't have this memory, you are just an animal. When you live, like you and me, in the beginning of the 21st century, we have this background and these memories."

"I like to write about our complexity, our tragedy – about our double nature. At the same time, in my life I'm constantly optimistic. It's so strange to me to live in these two dimensions."

"When I write a novel, I see the scene in my mind, and I just try to translate this vision... When I write a screenplay, I use a very basic language, without a poetic dimension... My real luck is to have the opportunity to explore both ways."

"I need my home. I need my simple city... Many, many publishers, critics and writers believe that Paris is the centre of the world. It's ridiculous. I like authenticity."

"I try just to do my best. I know that my novel is not a masterpiece. But I try to follow my way, to explore my obsessions and to explore the paradox of our nature... Constantly, I try to work with sincerity. In my novels, in this movie, I want just to tell a story with sincerity, with honesty."

Taken from an interview with Boyd Tonkin

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