Les combustibles (1994) – which is entitled Human Rites in the English translation – is a play set in a freezing besieged town in an unnamed country, although we know that Nothomb partly had the siege of Sarajevo in mind when writing it. All of the action takes place in the room of an unnamed university professor aged about 50, and the only other two characters are the doctoral student Daniel – who is also the Professor's assistant – and Daniel's girlfriend-of-the-year Marina.
Les combustibles intentionally evokes Sartre's Huis Clos, which also has three characters in a claustrophobic atmosphere, and was published in occupied France in 1944. Nothomb strongly alludes to this when Marina mentions Georges Bernanos, and quotes from his Monsieur Ouine (1943): 'L'enfer, c'est le froid' – 'Hell is the cold', which immediately brings to mind Sartre's 'L'enfer, c'est les autres' – 'Hell is other people.' So far, so Nothombian.
The central issue is that the cold is so intense that the characters risk literally freezing to death unless heat is generated in some way: they have already burned the furniture apart from three chairs, and it is obvious that the Professor will have to burn his books in order to survive. But which books should be burned first: in other words, which are of the least literary value?
Apart from Bernanos, Marivaux is the only other non-invented author mentioned, and they are only mentioned in passing anyway, and the only non-invented books, also merely mentioned in passing, are The Iliad, The Odyssey, and – surprise, surprise – Fahrenheit 451 (which of course is the temperature at which paper burns).
This obviously means that the reader can have no views that conflict or interfere with the literary views expressed in Les combustibles, although it is clear that the Professor is an enormous hypocrite, but much more significantly – Nothomb is challenging the whole idea of a literary canon invented by a university élite.
Also, Les combustibles is as much a feminist statement as a literary one:
Marina, like Nina in Hygiène de l'assassin, is a spunky woman who shows herself an intellectual match for the Professor. Nothomb is ever eager to flex her feminist muscles. The Professor, of course, is yet another monster. I'm not certain if Nothomb would have been aware of David Mamet's Oleanna – a play concerning the sexual harrassment of an undergraduate by her professor – before writing Les combustibles because the time frame between the two is quite narrow, but there are strong similarities between Oleanna and the second (that is, the middle) part of Les combustibles, albeit in a very different way.
Amélie Nothomb has been publishing books for 18 years. Where have I been?