It’s difficult to read Phillipe Claudel’s The Investigation without invoking the overused and abused term, Kafkaesque. Yet no other term really comes close to describing what is for the most part an intriguing work. Unfortunately, the end of the book takes the surrealistic aspect of the style to an extreme.
The book tells of the Investigator, sent to an unnamed city to investigate a series of suicides among workers at the Enterprise, a huge company that produces products that cover the range of human activities. The Investigator finds himself in an at times absurd and bizarre locale, where almost nothing is at it seems and bureaucracy takes precedence over common sense. There seems to be little rhyme or reason to the streets; they are maze-like but all seem to abut some aspect of the Enterprise. The streets and sidewalks are empty at night but are jam-packed during the day. Given Room 14 at a hotel, the room is located on the ninth floor. When moved to Room 93 the next night, it is on the second floor.
As in Kafka’s short story “In the Penal Colony,” the characters are all referred to by their role. In addition to the Investigator, there are the Waiter, the Manager, the Policeman and the Guide, among others. He has little luck even finding the people necessary for him to begin his investigation and his first full day in the city is filled with nothing but frustration and roadblocks. By the next day, however, the attitudes and personalities of those he encounters change.
The setting, and to some extent the tone, differentiate the book from Claudel’s previous novels. By a Slow River, released in the U.S. in 2006, is more of a period piece. Claudel says the story of three mysterious deaths in a French village during World War I was inspired by John Everett Millais’ painting Ophelia, of a young woman floating in a river just before she drowns. The award-winning Brodeck, released in the U.S. in 2009, is an engrossing story of a man who returns to his village after being in a concentration camp and is assigned to document what led to the village’s murder of a stranger who arrives in the village shortly thereafter. (It was one of the best books I read in 2010.) While both are fine prose, the language of The Investigation, translated by John Cullen (who also translated Brodeck), seems more florid and intentional.
Yet there is a commonality among the books—a bent toward examining both alienation and what makes us human. The Investigator’s experiences clearly make him an outsider, someone so far outside that he is baffled by the Enterprise and the town. Do we simply fulfill a role assigned us in life? Are we defined by our function? The Investigator confronts these questions as well as the framework of his reality as he struggles to do his job and grasp his situation.
Yet the book’s ultimate discussion of such issues descends too deeply into surrealism. If By a Slow River was inspired by Ophelia, The Investigation could be analogized to two surrealist artists. The majority of the book seems akin to the works of René Magritte, who tended to place realistic, ordinary objects in unusual contexts. The last 30 pages or so, though, invokes the hallucinatory nature of some of the works of Salvador Dalí. Granted, surrealism is an element of the Kafkaesque. Here, however, the striking contrast created by the last portion of the book throws a well-constructed work out of balance and overwhelms both the reader and the story.