14 December 2010

Amélie Nothomb: Antichrista (2003)

The work of Georges Bernanos - and his conception of evil in particular - is a very strong influence on Amélie Nothomb: in Antéchrista (translated into English as Antichrista) she quotes Bernanos from L'imposture (1927): 'La médiocrité, c'est l'indifférence au bien et au mal.' The book of Nothomb's that is most thematically similar to this novel, perhaps, is Les catilinaires (The Stranger Next Door in the English translation). Nothomb has called herself an outsider, and believes that the popularity of her work is the result of other outsiders reading her. As an adolescent, she read books about concentration camps - which should not surprise readers of Acide sulphurique, or even Le sabotage amoureux, which relates her childhood memories of San Li Tun, a diplomatic ghetto in Mao's China. But Nothomb also portrays social situations - even the mind itself - as concentration camps.

The list of authors Nothomb is influenced by is far too numerous to mention, but Sartre is certainly one, and although not by any means the most important, there is a strong message of 'Hell is other people' is her work, with main characters isolated and apparently impotent as others walk all over them and try to destroy their lives. In Les catalinaires, the monstrous Palamède Bernardin - essentially a mass of flesh with ludicrously little intellectual life - becomes Émile Hazel's tortionnaire (or torturer). But Christa - a 16-year-old the social misfit Blanche meets at university in Belgium - is very different from Bernardin, as she is young, attractive, very successful socially, and becomes Blanche's friend... Well, for a few moments, before becoming her torturer, and well before it's discovered that she's, er, an imposter.

It is stated many times that Christa comes from an impoverished background, and the friendless Blanche - after being made aware that Christa has to get up so early in the morning and travel so many hours just to reach her place of education - is elated when her parents (both teachers) take her in on weekdays without charge: what more could parents do for the financially poor best (and only) friend of their daughter?

Rapidly, Blanche's parents are won over by Christa to such an extent that she not only dominates their daughter's life, but also their own, and they don't realize how manipulative she's becoming. Blanche of course does, and realizes that she not only never had a friend, but that this person is now her torturer.

It takes a visit to Malmedy, the home town of Antichrista (as she is now silently called by Blanche), to discover that Antichrista's David Bowie look-alike boyfriend is in reality fat and ugly, but - much more condemning - Antichrista's parents live in a big house, her father owns a chain of companies, and Antichrista has told so many malicious lies, and...

And Blanche doesn't take Émile's way out, so there's a progression from Nothomb's earlier book, but what anyway is the non-violent equivalent of dealing with guys like Bernadin - as you certainly can't kiss them!

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