The Investigation

In Franz Kafka's unfinished novel, The Castle, first published in 1926, an anonymous land surveyor arrives in a nameless village below a castle where he is bullied and hindered at every turn by unseen and insane bureaucratic forces that gradually break him. In Philippe Claudel's new novel, The Investigation, an anonymous official arrives in an unnamed city dominated by The Enterprise, a corporate fortress. He is there to look into a series of suicides, but he immediately becomes the plaything of an invisible, demented bureaucracy that eventually destroys him. There are more specific nods to Kafka throughout Claudel's novel. The innkeeper, the policeman, the crazy voice on the telephone, the wandering across freezing, maze-like terrain, among other details strongly recall scenes and characters in The Castle, just as Claudel's surreal traffic episode echoes the one in Kafka's novel Amerika: The Man Who Disappeared.

The Investigator himself also seems familiar. "He was a small, slightly round fellow with thinning hair, and nothing about him, neither his clothes nor his expression, was remarkable," Claudel writes. This description, however, conjures up none other than George Smiley. Like Smiley, the Investigator is outwardly dull and self-effacing. "He'd been forgotten," he realizes as he waits to be met, "It wasn't the first time." Later we are told, "Friendship is a rare thing, and the Investigator had never tried it." He is, above all, "a scrupulous, professional, careful, disciplined, and methodical person who didn't allow himself to be surprised…"
Unlike Smiley, the Investigator is plunged into an absurd, malevolent world where his training and diligence are pathetically irrelevant. Here he becomes both suspect and victim. When he is finally admitted to the colossal Enterprise building, for example, he is instructed to follow a green line (headlong into a wall) and is told by the apparently lunatic Security Officer: "Man created order at a time when nothing was required of him. He thought himself clever. He's had cause to regret it." Shortly afterward, he is closeted with the Psychologist and then abandoned in the Waiting Room, a freezing, blinding "world of whiteness" where white magazines with blank pages are provided and where his disintegration accelerates. ("He felt that all the places he'd passed through…no longer existed…and that he was now getting ready to become a person who, quite simply, would soon cease to be a person at all.")

Kafka, Beckett, Huxley, Orwell, Poe: each casts a long shadow over these pages. Yet Claudel, for all his mannered introspection, creates anew a sickeningly tactile world and an atmosphere thick with menace and suspense. A stairway becomes "shaky, rubbery, incomparably treacherous, like a supple, mobile carpet of moss." The Suicides, lined up for inspection, "were all resolutely dead…and yet the eyes of each followed the Investigator as he moved from one to another…" Instead of a plot, there is a descent -- from bleak humor, through melancholy and confusion, to final terror and despair -- and a stark conclusion. "In our time," the Investigator is told, "man is a negligible quantity, a secondary species with a talent for disaster." Perhaps. But Claudel's frail hero makes his mark, on these bleak pages and on the reader's troubled consciousness.

About the Columnist
Anna Mundow, a longtime contributor to The Irish Times and The Boston Globe, has written for The Guardian, The Washington Post and The New York Times among other publications.

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