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Belletrista: "A brilliant novel that defies description."

Date: Nov 1 2010

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Reviewed by Andy Barnes for Belletrista


Although Amélie Nothomb has been a prolific and acclaimed author for nearly twenty years now, it is only comparatively recently that English translations of her books have started to appear. Now, at last, Hygiene and the Assassin, her 1992 debut novel, is available to English speakers for the first time. I had never read Nothomb before and, given her reputation as a difficult, challenging and even dangerous writer, I started reading with some trepidation.

 

Hygiene and the Assassin is the story of Prétextat Tach, a brilliant writer and Nobel laureate. When Tach finds that he is terminally ill, a series of journalists visit him, hoping to get the definitive final interview with a literary genius. Tach, irascible, unpleasant, even psychopathic, swats away his first four interviewers like flies, engaging them in verbal jousting before throwing them unceremoniously onto the street. The fifth, a woman called Nina, proves to be sterner opposition. In her battle with Tach she begins to uncover the story of his youth, and discovers secrets that have defined Tach as a writer and resulted in the bloated and monstrous man he has become.

 

I have read few books that have taken me on quite such a rollercoaster ride as this one. As the journalists filed in and out like suitors in a fairy tale, each being rejected for different reasons, I was initially annoyed by Tach's completely unpleasant personality, although it was undoubtedly fun to read on as he dispatches the hapless hacks one after the other. As his interview with Nina proceeds, however, their relationship becomes oddly beguiling. As his horrific childhood story unfurls (and it is horrific), Tach begins to make sense, and every difficult answer he threw at the previous journalists suddenly appears not as a random insult, but as a truth about his life. The duet between Nina, who sees life as a blessing, and Tach, who sees it as a curse, drew me inexorably into the novel. By the time I reached the ending, I was left dazed by what I had just read.

 

Hygiene and the Assassin is a brilliant novel that defies description. It could be seen as a satire about journalism, as the reporters are given exactly what they want but refuse to listen. It could also be a satire about writing, particularly Tach's self-centred and psychopathic approach to his chosen profession. I prefer to think of it as a monstrous fairy tale, both pointed and whimsical. It is not a book for the faint-hearted, nor for those who enjoy a more conventional approach to literature. It is, however, very good, very unusual and hopefully the first of many Nothombs for me.