18 December 2010

Amélie Nothomb: Le fait du prince (2008)

On the back cover of Le fait du prince is a quotation from it: 'Il y a un instant, entre la quinzième et la seizième gorgée de champagne, où tout homme est un aristocrate': 'There is a moment, between the fifteenth and the sixteenth mouthful of champagne, when everyone is an aristocrat.' Nothomb should know, as she adores champagne. As do the odd couple in this novel, which is a kind of eccentric spy story set mainly in a villa in Versailles (where Nothomb has never been), and toward the end in Sweden (where she has never been either).

Baptiste Bordave receives a visit from an unknown man who says his car has broken down and, without a cell phone, he's been unable to make contact with anyone, so can he use Baptiste's phone? No problem there, but the stranger dies while making the call, and Baptiste doesn't know what to do. Nothomb – who by the way refuses to have an internet connection – is preoccupied by identity, and Baptiste decides to assume the identity of the dead man.

Baptiste takes the dead man's 1000 euros along with his wallet,  and decides to exchange lives with the dead Swedish Olaf Sildur, who lives in Versailles. This is made easier by the fact that the car – which is worth ten times more than Baptiste's – hasn't broken down at all, so he drives to the Versailles address where Olaf used to live. Letting himself in with Olaf's key, and not knowing if the Swede is married of whatever, Baptiste – after parking some distance away from the villa – just makes himself at home.

When Olaf's wife arrives she accepts him as part of the family and lavishes food and abundant champagne on him: she thinks he's a business colleague of Olaf's, and rather likes Baptiste (who calls himself (another) Olaf).

Olaf's wife is French, although she refuses to give her real name, preferring to accept Baptiste's chosen Sigrid. For a few days, Baptiste refuses to go outside while Sigrid shops expensively with Olaf's credit card, visits museums, and occasionally wonders where Olaf is. Through all this, Baptiste is treated as an important guest, although he learns that Olaf was a kind of secret agent, so identity is a normal center of confusion in the household. But Baptiste, who took down the number Olaf dialed in his flat, finds out that the dialee's name is George Sheneve, phones him as Olaf Sildur, then is told that that is impossible as Olaf Sildur is dead, and that he will not get away with it.

So. So Sigrid provides vintage champagne in increasing abundance, gets Baptiste impossibly drunk but continues to care for him and indeed appears to love him more than her missing husband. 

At the same time, both Baptiste and Sigrid seem to live according to Kierkegaard's first basic (aesthetic) state, in which the following question seems very pertinent: 'Et si l'ivresse était le moyen de retrouver le monde d'avant la chute?': 'And if intoxication were the means to recapture the world before the Fall?' Adulthood takes us further and further away from the truth of childhood, and puberty is the essential mark of the descent.

As husband and wife, Baptiste (OK, Olaf) and his wife Sigrid flee to Sweden in Olaf's car, live for a short time on a huge amount of money taken from a bank in Versailles, spend crazily until they are in vast debt, but the bank will continue to lend them vast sums of money because, as ex-wealthy people, they will surely get up there again, won't they? Nothomb called this an extremely serious book.

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