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Words Without Borders: "Astonishing in its wit and grace."

Date: Mar 15 2013

“I need to be very hungry all the time,” celebrated Belgian novelist and disordered eater Amélie Nothomb once admitted. “I need to be very hungry to write.” For her nineteenth book, LIFE FORM, Nothomb has applied her preternaturally original mind to those two favorite subjects—writing and “superhunger”—to create a story that, even by her standards, is astonishing in its wit and grace. As usual, we meet a narrator named Amélie, who’s almost indistinguishable from the author. But in a new departure for Nothomb, this partly epistolary novel also includes the perspective of a character with whom she has little in common—an American man—thus creating an extra challenge for her longtime translator, Alison Anderson. Both “Amélie’s” distinctive cadence of voice and the believably rendered voice of her correspondent are nevertheless captured by Anderson with characteristic precision.

Inspired by a USA Today article about the epidemic of obesity among American soldiers in Iraq, LIFE FORM begins with a 2008 letter from Melvin Mapple, a United States Army private stationed in Baghdad. Reading letters from her adoring public is an everyday task for Nothomb: known to abjure email and reply, by hand, to all epistles, she regularly corresponds with fans. This particular fan, however, piques her curiosity. “I’m writing to you because I am as down as a dog,” he explains. “I need some understanding and I know that if anyone can understand me, you can.” No wonder he’s depressed, thinks Nothomb, if he’s caught up in that war, but “it was completely mind-boggling that he would write to me about it.”

She politely writes back, and after a few more letters have been exchanged, Mapple’s reason for choosing Nothomb as a pen pal emerges. To anyone familiar with her oeuvre, it makes perfect sense: he has coped with the trauma of combat, of “rocket fire, tanks, bodies exploding next to me,” by gorging on food. Now he weighs 400 pounds: the equivalent, he points out, of carrying around a whole extra person. His fleshy double is named Scheherazade, he has decided, and when he’s in bed he likes to imagine that the female form of Scheherazade is lying over him, rather than his own immensity. “I know that you won’t judge me,” he writes to Nothomb. “You have a few obese characters in your books, and the way you portray them they never lack dignity.”

Mapple’s analyses of his own and his friends’ obsessive eating—for he belongs to a clique of binge-eating soldiers who need larger uniforms each month to accommodate their weight gain—is the novel’s masterstroke. “In Vietnam our boys had opium,” he writes, “and say what you like about it, it’s not nearly as habit-forming as my own addiction to pastrami sandwiches.” But it is a willful rather than a helpless addiction: for Mapple, obesity is a means of broadcasting his moral outrage at the role he’s been forced to play, “to make the entire world see the unprecedented horror of this war.” As far as he’s concerned, the soldiers who remain thin are the disgusting ones, because they “go on with life as if nothing has changed.” An ingenious fictional strategy, Mapple’s letters dramatize an ardent, convincing condemnation of the Iraq War, and of the Bush administration, without being tediously didactic, or shrill, or pointlessly preaching to the choir—and his psychological coping mechanisms are so surprising and affecting that Nothomb’s underlying motives, whatever their precise ideological nature, remain inconspicuous. “Sometimes I tell myself that Scheherazade is one of those Iraqi women I massacred,” he confesses. “No metaphor intended, I assume the burden of my crime . . . No way can I go on a diet. I don’t want to lose Scheherazade. If I lost weight it would be like killing her all over again.”

LIFE FORM is not merely a satiric commentary on the effects of war. As Melvin and Amélie’s long-distance friendship deepens and begins to have real-life implications, events take a sharp turn that the reader may have seen even if the narrator, in her innocence, didn't. The story then segues into a wry exploration of another of Nothomb’s primary preoccupations, one that is inseparable from the themes of writing and hunger: the fragility—literally and figuratively—of identity. “Thank you for writing that I exist for you,” Mapple tells her at one point, “that’s very important to me.” Knowing that his letters have conferred on him another existence, as “a figment” in Nothomb’s brain, is a major consolation amid his shame over his “real” self.

But what does existence actually mean in a context that is (ironically, given Mapple’s girth) entirely non-corporeal? To Nothomb, language “is the highest degree of reality,” but as the novel moves thrillingly to its conclusion, that fondly held belief is threatened by the prospect of meeting Mapple and letting unpredictable, flesh-and-blood reality intrude on his carefully curated self-presentation—potentially turning it all to dust. LIFE FORM’s singular portrayal of the possibilities, and limitations, of a writing-bound communion may take place outside of the Internet. But in the end, it’s the perfect fairy tale for our online age.

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