19 November 2010

Amélie Nothomb: Journal d'Hirondelle (2006)

This is the story of a madman. For the unnamed narrator of Journal d'Hirondelle - or rather, for the man whose real name is never revealed - the craziness begins after a love affair, when he decides to force upon himself a 'suicide sensoriel', or suicide of the senses: he becomes impotent in many respects, his world reduced to nothingness.

But it is Radiohead's experimental track 'Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors' from their album Amnesiac (2001), and the continuous playing of it, that opens up a breach in one of his deadened senses. He notes that he can't compare it to the Decadents' search for a deregulation of all the senses, but 'We're never happier than when we've found a way of losing ourselves.' He loses his job too, becomes a hired killer working under the name Urbain, and something unfamiliar occurs on his first assignment: on arriving home after the murder, he has his first orgasm in several months (by 'la veuve poignet', or masturbation), but the sensation is weak compared with the thrill the shooting itself gives him. What he had needed all these months was 'the new, the unnamed, the unnameable'. What he experiences is a kind of intoxication, something of great importance in Nothomb's work in general. And Radiohead seem to complement his new profession in their music's lack of nostalgia, making him feel 'indifferent to the poisonous sentimentality of memories'. He has a theory that the feelings experienced by the assassin - in the moment of assassination - are in accordance with the music which that person listens to: Alex's murders in Burgess's (or Kubrick's) A Clockwork Orange are inextricably linked to the ecstasy of Beethoven's Ninth, whereas Urbain's are inextricably linked to 'the hypnotic efficacity' of Radiohead. And like the drug of music, killing too becomes his drug, and on contract-free days he must go into the streets and kill a stranger.

Urbain's last authentic assignment - which is shortly followed by his bizarre redemption - involves killing a politician, along with his wife and three children, although the contract is invalid without bringing back the man's briefcase. Urbain performs his grizzly duty, and on returning home finds in the briefcase the diary of the politician's 18-year-old daughter, which the man has for some unknown reason confiscated. Urbain opens it, and then quickly closes it as he feels ashamed. This is when he thinks he's found the difference between good and bad: killing the girl is nothing, but reading her diary is an unforgivable crime. Perhaps.

From this moment everything changes, and the diary becomes both MacGuffin and sacrament. And Nothomb must have had great fun in choosing this name for the girl. Very short, but really riveting stuff.

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