Echoes of an Empty Mind: "HYGIENE AND THE ASSASSIN, first published in France in 1992, is in hindsight (and by author's own admission) the most sincere projection of her own self into words"
Date: May 21 2015
Our relationship with stories is an odd one - on one hand, stories fuel our imagination and extend our experiences into the unknown; on the other hand, we often dismiss stories as 'just a figment of imagination,' as if, not being realized somehow limits the effectiveness of fiction in having a meaningful conversation with us. For make no mistake -- every author since the first recorded fiction (a matter of much debate!) has sought simply to have a conversation with another human. What probably began as an informal conversation around the communal fire, soon (on the scale of centuries) morphed into a formal, oral mechanism of knowledge transfer, which survived until Gutenberg had other plans.
Even the stories themselves, if we can think about them in isolation, are intricately tied to the presenter - be it the author, actor, scriptwriter, director or cameraman - depending on the medium of expression. Every individual involved in this process of collaborative creation brings a part of their own life, their own personalities into the whole. But writing, that most loneliest of creative pursuits, is a slightly different beast - certainly more intimate, yet infinitely more challenging. Perhaps the most challenging aspect of writing is that the collaboration is virtually non-existent, except with the author's internal "voice" that guides the process. Amelie Nothomb's debut novel, "Hygiene and the Assassin," first published in France in 1992, is in hindsight (and by author's own admission) the most sincere projection of her own self into words. Published in English twenty years later, Alison Anderson's translation brings this controversial novel to the non-French public.
The story revolves around two protagonists - Prétextat Tach, an aging, obese Nobel laureate who is dying from Elzenveiverplatz Syndrome, an imaginary malady created by the author, and Nina, a reporter who has, in fact, read all of his published works and then some. Tach is portrayed as a reclusive misanthrope, hardly the image that the public has of this famous author. The story opens with the announcement that Tach has mere months to live. Naturally, the media breaks into a frantic race to interview him, and only five reporters are allowed a brief interview with the aging author. In the actual interviews, Tach alternately revolts and alienates the reporters to the extent that none of them complete the interview (which is what he wants). All except Nina, the final interviewer, who proves to be more than a match to Tach's caustic barbs and exercises in revulsion. She goes a step ahead and also extracts details of his personal life from his twenty-two novels and the unfinished manuscript Hygiene and the Assassin. What ensues is a witty (but not at all charming) repartee, a cat-and-mouse game in which the stakes are higher than what appears on the surface. While Nina would certainly want to walk away with the scoop of her life, Tach knows he has a very short time remaining, and has nothing to lose. The power game escalates when Nina dismantles Tach's life in pretty much the same fashion as he has treated the earlier interviewers. The ending will stay the reader for days, even months - for its unexpectedness, as well as the raw, unsophisticated depiction of the actions that lead to it.
The text defies any natural characterization into a specific genre - it is broadly a dark comedic tale, but there are numerous passages that may well be beyond the accepted convention of 'humor' in literature. It is as if the author intends to shock the reader by making the characters larger-than-life, and then try to say too much in too little space. Being the first novel, and written decades earlier than its English translation release, the text also feels less contemporary. All this however, does not equate to gimmickry, and is just a taste of the writing that Nothomb wrote in later years, as a more mature author. My first reading of this book (in 2010) made me want to throw it across the room in disgust. On closer observation, I am guessing this is exactly what the author intended! Later readings have helped in looking beyond the gross factor and superficial text. This is certainly not a book that regular English readers expect, and it is not surprising to see why Nothomb is massively popular in the non-English European and Asian markets (to name a few).