It is after the Second World War, but Claudel's descriptions often call to mind a more ancient world of monumental, gnarled villagers; and the way he writes about scenery evokes now some illuminated manuscript, now paintings by Brueghel. The village is not named, but we are obviously in Alsace: the villagers have German names, and they use words in a twisted (invented?) German dialect.
Brodeck is one of them, but, unlike the others, he is far from monumental. He is timid and quivers with anxiety after his appalling experiences in a concentration camp from which he had recently returned. (There are hints, never made explicit, that he was of Jewish origin.) He has an insignificant job reporting to the local administration on the state of the local paths and streams, fauna and flora.
The villagers have murdered a man who had come to the village from Outside and whom from the beginning they had called the `Anderer' [sic - the Other], and later, more ominously, the `Fremder' [Foreigner]. Brodeck had not been present at the murder, but because he is a reporter, the villagers force him to write a report for the mayor of the village to pass on to the authorities. He had not been present because he was himself something of an Outsider, having been brought to the village as an orphan child soon after the First World War, and then having returned to it from the camp when those who had denounced him to the Germans had presumed him dead. (Just how much of an Outsider or `Fremder' he has always been considered emerges later.) It is clear from the start that the task he has been given is dangerous: for before he can carry it out, he has to question himself and others about the circumstances which had led to the murder.
He zigzags back and forth between shards of memory. Many of course concern the enigmatic Anderer who had been seen sketching or writing things into his notebooks, but who hardly ever spoke. The tension that builds up around him grips not only the villagers, but the reader also.
Other memories recall Brodeck's horrifying past experiences: the inhumanity of men in the mass, a murderous city riot, life and death in the camps. We learn how the villagers had behaved under the occupation of the Germans, who are referred to throughout as `Fratergekeime' [brother brood? because they spoke the same language?]: the betrayals of frightened collaborators, willing collaborators, penitent collaborators. None of them can now bear to see the truths about themselves.
Brodeck recalls oppressive heat and freezing cold (the weather often plays the part of a chorus), smells of cooking, of smoke, of farm animals, of ordure, of decaying corpses and of perfumes. There is his love - its pathos becomes clearer as the story progresses - for his wife, his young daughter, and for the wise old woman who has looked after him as nurse and housekeeper ever since she had brought him as an orphan to the village.
There are some near-surrealistic incidents, and passages rich in similes and symbolism. A haunting work of art.