BTBA 2011 First Look-Hygiene and the Assassin by Amelie Nothomb

Best Translated Book Award 2011

Amelie Nothomb~Belgium

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“Are you familiar with a review regarding Hygiene of the Assassin, one that I read in a newspaper twenty-four years ago?  ‘A richly symbolic fairytale, a dreamlike metaphor of original sin and consequently, of the human condition.’  When I told you that people read me without reading me!  I can allow myself to stray dangerously close to the truth, all anyone will ever see is metaphors.  There’s nothing surprising about that:  the pseudo-reader, clad in his diving suit, can swim perfectly impermeably through my bloodiest sentences.  From time to time he will exclaim with delight, ‘What a lovely symbol!’ That is what you call clean reading.  A marvelous invention, very pleasant to practice in bed before falling asleep; it calms the mind and doesn’t even dirty the sheets.”

Amelie Nothomb’s Hygiene and the Assassin is an achievement.  For many reasons, but primarily because of its quality as a debut novel.  The novel itself is almost twenty years old and since its publication, Nothomb has gone on to publish a novel almost yearly, several of which have garnered various literary prizes in France including the Grand Prix du roman.  Nothomb is a provocative writer whose themes range from female body image to gender roles to the abnormal and deformed.  Her reputation is solidified in France and Belgium as, well, a reputation.  Begrudgingly acknowledged by critics, her piquant style, her subject matter, her intelligence and her fecundity make her difficult to ignore.  The press love her because she’s a bit outlandish which is also why she is beloved by Euro-hipster crowd.  Make no mistake, she is a quality author with lots of things to say.  She may address some of the same themes a bit repetitiously and that can mean that some works are stronger than others.  What is most striking is their quality and brevity.  At forty-three, she has more novels than most writers and she has won the Grand Prix du roman.  She’s not a fluke. 

It’s no wonder this first novel gained so much attention and notice.  Pretextat Tach is a Nobel Prize winning  writer, a pillar of the intellectual community, who is dying of a rare form of cancer.  In his eighties, he hasn’t written anything new for twenty five years, but because of his prodigious backlog, he is still able to publish regularly.  Having only months to live, he orders his assistant, Gravelin, to pick five journalists to come to his home and interview him.  Of course, being a manipulative and prejudiced sort, Tach has conditions about the candidates.  They can’t be of color, foreign or write for women’s magazines. 

This sets up his misanthropic nature which is paired with his grotesque appearance: bald, obese, and confined to a wheelchair.  The interviews take place over five days and they are held in Tach’s  oppressive and  dimly lit living room.  The suffocating nature of the setting is broken up by location changes to the cafe across the street and this gives the reader some much needed breathing room.  Over the course of the five days, the first four interviewers are chewed up and spit out by Tach’s intellectual prowess and sadistic nature.  The interviewers are played with, forced to endure Tach’s obsession with toffees and Brandy Alexanders(made from a coffin, no less) that Nothomb exploits to a superb and disgusting effect.  He dismisses the first four interviewers who commiserate at the cafe, shocked at how broken and battered they feel.  These four encounters read like a Gordian knot of literary criticism, the battle of perception between reader and writer:

“But it is irrefutable.  Take Homer, for example:  now there is a writer who has never been this famous.  Yet do you know many people who have truly read the real Iliad, or the real Odyssey?  A handful of bald philologists, that’s all–because you can’t really qualify as readers a few dozy high school students mumbling their way through Homer in the classroom when all they’re thinking about is Depeche Mode or AIDS.  And it is precisely for that excellent reason that Homer is the reference.”

Enter Nina, the fifth interviewer.  After a round of misdirected misogyny, Nina proves that she is a match for Tach. Not only is she a match, but she skillfully takes the upper hand before too long.  Having read been the only interviewer who really had read all twenty-two of Tach’s works, she is armed with a knowledge even more insightful than the author of his own work.  Nina holds a secret about Tach that flips the writer-reader dynamic on its head.  By the end of the interview, she is in full control and Tach is professing his love for her. 

As deeply as Nothomb delves into the reader-writer relationship, this is a reader’s read, a writer’s treatise.  Filled with her trademark witty dialogue and trenchant social criticism, it sets the tone for her impressive future works.  The fascination with food and body image and sexual maturation points to her exploration of anorexia as a theme and Nothomb addresses it in a thorough fashion that hasn’t been done much in literature.  Also, her mastery with dialogue keeps the pace needed to keep the reader’s attention.  Although, I found the dialogue between Nina and Tach, as clever as it was, too similar.  It took away from the depth of the characters and  a distinction of their voices rendering it more as a internal conflict of the author’s intellectual debate than as two different characters sparring. 

This is a tight and ambitious first novel, playful, smart and original.  Alison Anderson does well with the translation, as she did with Nothomb’s novel,
Tokyo FianceeHygiene and the Assassin is a complex whirlwind of the roles of reader and writer, admonishing the weak and insincere in both.  What I took away most, besides the imagery and power struggles inherent in a patriarchal society, was the concept of what it means to truly read a book.  And with this effort, Nothomb gives us plenty to ponder. 

Hygiene and the Assassin

By Amelie Nothomb
Translated by Alison Anderson
Europa Editions
Paperback, 169 pp.
ISBN: 9781933372778

Check out Richard Lea’s interview from The Guardian here.

Other works by Amelie Nothomb:

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