22 November 2010

Hygiène de l'assassin (1992): Amélie Nothomb's 'Manifesto'

Amélie Nothomb has spoken of being her mother Danièle's third child, and her longest and most painful delivery: hers was a breech birth, her buttocks emerging first and her head refusing to come out. Her umbilical cord was strangling her, she didn't cry and remained silent for two years, provoking her mother to seek professional advice for what she called her daughter's 'vegetative' state. Amélie's experiences are novelized in Métaphysique des tubes (2000), and to some extent all her works have autobiographical elements. Her first novel is what she terms her 'manifesto'.

In Hygiène de l'assassin (1992), Prétextat Tach shares some of the characteristics of Celsius in Péplum in that he is an arrogant, sexually impotent genius who loves intellectual dueling, but he's also a racist, sexist, gluttonous monster, and a winner of the Nobel prize for literature. Very little is known of this recluse who has no family or friends, but as he has only two months to live, he has deigned to give interviews to journalists. To his delight, his intellectual bullying and general verbal violence send four journalists from his room on separate occasions, although the final journalist is very different.

Nina is the only woman, and Prétextat immediately attempts to make intellectual mincemeat of her, although he is due for a great shock: not only does this journalist stand her ground absolutely, but from the beginning she even has Prétextat begging her to stay. And not only does she know more about the author's books than the author himself - even to the point of listing the exact number of men and women in each of his 22 novels - but she has carried out original research into Prétextat's background, in spite of his zealous striving to keep it a secret.

On the face of it, it should seem truly bizarre that Nothomb has, in an obvious wink to Flaubert, said on several occasions: 'Prétextat, c'est moi'.

Prétextat is 83, and has not published a novel since he was 59. Even his last one, Hygiène de l'assassin, was published unfinished, but only Nina knows - or at least is almost certain she knows - the reason why. But Prétextat has nothing to lose any more, and there is no reason why he shouldn't confess to the murder he committed at the age of 17.

Puberty, like virginity, is an important theme in Nothomb's work. References to religion abound, and Hygiène de l'assassin presents childhood as a paradise, and puberty as a fall, or a kind of death, or neither life nor death but between two states. And Nothomb herself believes this. Like Plectrude in Robert des noms propres (2002) and the beautiful young lovers Prétextat and Léopoldine in her book Hygiène de l'assassin, Nothomb tried to prolong childhood. In Péplum, A. N. in the 26th century is another disguised representation of puberty: she is between two states, and has no fear of physical death. Prétextat strangles Léopoldine when she begins menstruating, which is on her birthday: 13 August, a date which is mentioned 15 times, as if it were of some great significance. Yes, Nothomb's birthday is 13 August - the day she was nearly strangled.

Loss of childhood innocence is a relatively common theme in literature, but Nothomb takes it to a completely different level.

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