Saturday, November 27, 2010

*Hygiene and the Assassin, by Amélie Nothomb

Europa Editions, 2010
Translated by Alison Anderson
original French title: Hygiene de l'assassin, 
   1992, Éditions Albin Michel
167 pp.

Hygiene and the Assassin probably qualifies for my "strangest book read this year" award (up there with Little Hands Clapping)  but at the same time, there's something unique between the covers of this small novel. The setup for the story is that a Nobel Prize-winning author by the name of Prétextat Tach is about to die.  He is the author of twenty-two novels, is extremely reclusive, and has never granted an interview over his long career. Now that he is dying (from Elzenveirverplatz Syndrome -- a long name for a rare cartilage cancer), Tach's assistant has granted a select few journalists the rarest of opportunities for an interview.  One by one they come in, tape recorders ready to capture every word, and one by one Tach makes proverbial mincemeat out of them and tosses them out.  But the meat of this book begins with the entrance of Nina, an intriguing young woman who isn't about to join her predecessors.  After only a short while, and after Tach makes a remark about enjoying watching people crawl at his feet, Nina offers an intriguing wager:

 You said something about crawling. I suggest identical stakes for both of us. If I crack, I'm the one who'll crawl at your feet, but if you crack, you'll crawl at my feet.  I like to see people crawling at my feet too.

Tach takes the bet, noting that he loves "squashing people," and that "humiliating pretentious airhead females" is something that brings him "extreme pleasure."  And thus begins the verbal fencing match between the two, which lasts for the book's remaining 74 pages. There is absolutely no redeeming quality in the character of Tach; he is one of the most odious characters ever imagined.  He's self-obsessed, feels he has risen above the rest of the world, cares nothing for the rest of humanity (especially for women).  But what makes this book work and work well is the often brutal repartee between Tach and Nina, as she manipulates the conversation which eventually leads back into his past -- but to say more would be to ruin it.

This book is not for everyone; it is odd and very quirky with a main character that is, quite frankly, a disgusting pig. If that doesn't bother you, it is one of those novels that will entice you with its beginning and keep you reading until the last page.  And although the core of this story consists only of dialogue, it is extremely well done -- it is not clumsy or out of step, and stays solidly grounded within the inherent qualities of both characters.  IMHO, this is the mark of a talented writer, but also of a skilled translator.

I would recommend it for those who want more of a challenge in their reading. It's often difficult, and there are many literary references that many people may not get, but which are important to an understanding of Tach's character. I spent a great deal of time on Wikipedia, but a lot of readers want a straightforward novel with linear plot, resolution and a clearly-explained ending.  For those people, this may not be the book for you. But if you're up for it, and want something unique, you'll enjoy it.

fiction from France

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