Monday, 11 February 2013

'The Investigation' by Philippe Claudel (Review)

One unfortunate side effect of my January in Japan responsibilities was that I was unable to do anything for another important event last month - the celebration of MacLehose Press' fifth birthday.  I was lucky enough to receive a few review copies from them last year, and I've already been sent a couple of books this year that sound like my kind of reading.  Consider this post then a belated birthday greeting ;)

Philippe Claudel's The Investigation (translated by Daniel Hahn) is a beautiful, silvery book, and a work very much in the vein of a Kafka novel.  We begin outside the train station of an unknown town, where the Investigator, sent by his company to investigate a series of suicides, searches in vain for a taxi.  As the snow begins to fall, he sets off on foot and enters a bar - and has the first of many unusual encounters with the people of the town.

The company he has been sent to investigate is known simply as The Firm, an enormous conglomerate which is the focal point of the town, a huge complex which is unmissable, yet somehow difficult to reach.  The more the poor Investigator attempts to begin his task, the more bizarre events become.  The Policeman (who has his office in a broom cupboard and also cleans toilets), the Manager (an employee of the Firm who does manic exercises in an attempt to prove that he is still on top of things) and the Giantess (a hotel receptionist right out of a fairy tale) - these are just some of the people the poor Investigator has to deal with in the course of his duties...

Of course, The Investigation is not your average story.  Claudel is creating a strange, Kafkaesque world, where nothing is quite as it seems. The protagonist is deliberately knocked off his equilibrium right at the start, and he is never able to get anywhere close to regaining his balance.  At times, the story almost descends into farce (a Mr. Bean-type trip to the toilet and a disastrous attempt to have a bath come to mind here), but the more the novel progresses, the less matters have to do with real life, moving off into a world of allegories.

At this point, the reader is forced to confront the fact that there is a meaning, a greater significance, hidden behind the farce and black humour, and it partly has to do with modern society.  The Firm is a representation of the dangers of globalisation, of the advanced stage of the industrial society and of giving up all semblance of individuality.  The Investigator feels that his personality is being erased by his dealings with the Firm, and he doesn't know if his thoughts are still his own:
"And yet, all these thoughts he could not get rid of, this vocabulary that was invading him in a succession of tides and waves were not his.  And if someone - something? - was starting insidiously to enter and inhabit him, interfering in his brain, his body, his movements and his words, how in such a situation was he to go back to being himself as he had believed himself to be a few minutes earlier?'
p.172 (MacLehose Press, 2013)
The Investigator feels himself to be a logical man, trapped in an illogical world.  I often know how he feels...

Like some of Kafka's protagonists, the Investigator (whose name we never learn) starts off full of bravado, convinced he can do his job and make a difference.  However, he soon comes up against unexpected obstacles and (again, like a figure from Kafka) he is moulded by circumstances into a new form.  He too begins to follow the rules of his new environment unthinkingly - one particular (literal) example of toeing the line ending up with a severe concussion.  He also gives up his individuality, in his weakness allowing figures like the Policeman, the Giantess and the Psychologist to make decisions for him.

At which point, you might be wondering what I actually made of all this - and to be honest, I'm still wondering myself.  The Investigation is undoubtedly a clever, fascinating novel, a book for people who enjoy intelligent fiction, but... may have noticed that I've used the name Kafka (or variants thereof) several times so far, and that is no coincidence.  The Czech master's elegant fingerprints are all over The Investigation - and I'm not convinced that this is always a good thing.  Anyone who has read The Castle will find it hard to avoid finding parallels between the two works (The Investigator/ The Land Surveyor, The Firm/ The Castle, The Inn/ The Hotel, the frequent types rather than names, the snow...).  In many ways, the first half of the book reads more like a modern rewriting of Kafka's story than a novel in its own right...

Still, once you get into The Investigation, there is more there than rehashed Czech ideas.  The second half of the novel goes off in its own direction, and is a much better book for it.  There is one more thing it has in common with Kafka's work though; despite the fact that it is obviously talking about something, it is doubtful that anyone will be able to agree on exactly what it wants to say.  Rest assured then that the writer doesn't expect us to pick up on everything.  He knows that man is unable to unravel all the mysteries of the universe:
"So why, then, does he consistently deceive himself into believing that his mind can understand everything and grasp everything?" p.219
At which point it is probably best to just admit defeat and go with the flow - or was that just what we are not supposed to do...

...I think I need to lie down for a while...