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The Complete Review: "Enjoyable creepy literary entertainment."

Date: Nov 13 2010

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Reviewed by M.A. Orthofer for The Complete Review

Hygiene and the Assassin begins with the Nobel Prize-winning novelist Prétextat Tach, fatally ill and with only two months left to live, deigning to give a select few journalists interviews. Tach is quite the character: eighty-three years old, morbidly obese, bald, he has lived in relative seclusion, apparently obsessed with nothing but his work. A novelist with the highest of literary reputations, he turns out to be truly full of himself -- and thoroughly unpleasant. 

One after another a few journalists enter Tach's den and come out thoroughly mauled. Each tapes their session with the master, and the colleagues listen to the interviews but don't learn their lesson: if not the same mistakes, each one manages to make new ones. This succession of disastrous encounters serves as a good introduction to Tach, and is often amusing, but it's all just the build-up to the final confrontation, the one which takes up more than half the book. 


After dismissing the rabble, one more journalist ventures in to challenge Tach and she -- eventually we learn her name is Nina -- is actually up to the task. 


The public has an image of Tach, which he has carefully undermined in the interviews he has just given. He revealed that he has not written a book in twenty-four year, merely pulling out ones he had penned during his writing years from his drawer occasionally to unleash a new one on the market. He claims to be a virgin, and that one reason he chose to live as a recluse and writer is because of his looks -- "if I had been handsome, I would never have become a writer. I would have been an adventurer, or a slave trader, or a barman, or a fortune hunter". He also has little but contempt for his readers -- knowing that few, in fact, have actually really read his books, despite their great popularity: 


Nina is different from the other journalists. For one, she is truly familiar with Tach's work. He has his doubts that she could truly have understood it, but she shows great familiarity with it -- novels including Apology of Dyspepsia, Assault on Ugliness, The Prose of Epilation, Crucifixion Made Easy, and, of course, Total Disaster. More importantly, she has done some research into Tach's life, and she has uncovered some truths which have remained half-hidden. As it turns out, Tach himself has largely exposed them -- in his own writing, specifically in his unfinished Hygiene and the Assassin -- but no one (before Nina) seems to have noticed. As Tach suggests:

But humankind doesn't give a damn ! The proof of it is that in twenty-four years this novel has been collecting dust in libraries and no one, you hear me, no one has ever even talked to me about it. And that's perfectly normal because, as I told you, no one has read it.


What Tach described in that book, and what Nina now accuses him of, is a horrendous act that was the culmination of a rather horrendously misguided notion that the Tach had in his youth (and still clings to), about childish innocence and purity -- and which explains his many decades of self-imposed chastity. As he tells Nina:

Don't you understand that girls die the day they begin puberty ? Worse than that, they die without disappearing.


Tach and Nina go back and forth -- Nina trying to elicit an admission of the whole story from Tach, Tach coyly only slowly admitting to it piece by piece -- until one bests the other. The conclusion, if unpleasant, is satisfying, with Nothomb managing to keep the suspense of how things will turn out until the very end: arguably the ending is the inevitable one -- but other variations would have seemed similarly inevitable.


Hygiene and the Assassin is a novel full of sparring. The first few rounds feature overmatched opponents who are in way over their heads (and weight-class, physically and intellectually), and Nothomb has simple fun playing with them. The main event features Nina and Tach, who are far more evenly matched. Presented mainly -- and then almost entirely -- in dialogue, Nothomb manages to present her curious character study cum mystery quite nicely. A few of the jabs and some of the arguments feel a bit forced -- Tach's arrogance about reading and understanding texts (his or that of other true writers, like Céline) are amusing, but it's hard to sustain that notion for so long -- but for the most part this is an enjoyable cat-and-mouse game, particularly because both Nina and Tach each see themselves as the cat and believe they have the upper hand; each also is able to repeatedly bring yet another unexpected turn to the discussion (Nina by revealing yet more information that he thinks she can't have, and Tach by his attitude to each new revelation (and his attitude generally)).


This is a young author's work -- it was Nothomb's debut -- and there's some clumsiness to it, but there are also some risks that a more mature author might not take and that pay off here. An enjoyably creepy literary entertainment.


[Hygiene and the Assassin was Nothomb's 1992 debut, and it's fascinating to return to it almost two decades later, as many of the themes addressed here have since been developed much further in later texts; Hygiene and the Assassin now reads very differently than it did when it was the first novel by a complete unknown. It's no surprise now, for example, that the once anorexic young woman would have chosen to bloat her protagonist to this degree. More significantly, Hygiene and the Assassin deals in an interesting way with what has been Nothomb's major personal pre-occupation, the difficulty of accepting the loss of childhood that comes with puberty. For example, it's no coincidence that the birthday of the girl who figures at the center of Tach's secret is 13 August -- as is Nothomb's. In later works Nothomb addresses the refusal to (physically) grow up in much more personally revealing terms, and it's fascinating to recall how she apparently needed to approach it in this exaggerated and distanced way first in order to open the floodgates. It is a remarkable first novel in that it is a true precursor to everything that followed -- it's almost all here -- and yet Nothomb has managed to continue to produce works that are entirely original: Hygiene and the Assassin was less a template (as far too many authors' first novel are) than a release, and what is perhaps most remarkable about Nothomb is how she has been able to build on and move beyond it.


(Recall also that Nothomb writes many more novels than she publishes: she has several drawers full and could, like Tach, stop on a dime and still continue publishing for decades to come.)]


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