9 December 2010

Four Autobiographical Novels by Amélie Nothomb

Métaphysique des tubes (2000) is a reconstruction of the first three years of Amélie Nothomb's life, and I have said a few words about this in the Hygiène de l'assassin post below. To repeat, Nothomb's was a breech birth: her buttocks came into the world first, her head at first refused to leave her mother, and her umbilical cord was strangling her. She did not cry, and the first two and a half years of her life were spent in silence and without movement.

The sixth word that Nothomb spoke was 'death', and this is significant for someone who had effectively spent two years and a half years apparently dead: her parents referred to her as 'la Plante'. Nothomb claims that she remembers her early words, although the early silent period of her life is obviously a fictionalization here - and is the most interesting part of the book -  but occupies less than 30 pages of it. Nothomb, who refused her mother's breast, is in a sense a nothing, a tube to feed, but at the same time a kind of god in a pre-verbal universe of her own. There is no 'I'.

This early childhood is evidently far from usual, and in fact there are elements of autism and anorexia in it. She refuses her mother's milk, and even when deprived of food, she doesn't cry out for it: 'To eat or not to eat, to drink or not to drink, that was all the same to it: to be or not to be was not its question.'

When Amélie finally makes a noise, it is colossal, her father calls his mother in Brussels to fly immediately to Japan as the Plant has come alive, but it is only when the grandmother Claude comes that Amélie really comes alive. Weaned on milk from a feeding bottle, purée with bits of meat in it, crushed banana, grated apple and orange juice, Claude surreptitiously gives Amélie a bar of white chocolate, the Plant tastes the forbidden fruit, and 'it' becomes 'I'.  The bodily pleasure is overwhelming, almost of a religious order, and here we find an echo of Nietzsche's Thus Spoke Zarathustra, one of the key texts of Nothomb's philosophical studies. There are many philosophical ruminations in Métaphysique de tubes.

The young Amélie develops a huge appetite for learning too, and will become gifted, speaking Japanese (picked up from the family help Nishio-san) almost as well as she speaks French. She learns that words give reality to things.

But no words shouted to save her life are heeded by the holidaying Japanese when Amélie is drowning in the sea: the debt owed for the action of saving a life is too great in this oriental society. But the theme of water recurs. To her parents, Amélie seems fascinated by fish, and carp in particular, so they buy her three for her third birthday, and she must feed them every day. In reality carp horrify her,  reminding her of the days when she was a silent tube, and of course there's a French expression 'muet comme une carpe', or 'silent as a carp'. Death and water come together again, and Amélie tries to drown herself in the fishpond.

This is far removed from your average autobiography.
Le sabotage amoreux (1993) covers the period from 1972 to 1975, beginning when Nothomb was aged just aged five. The family moved there from Japan, and Amélie's mother Danièle was struck by the ugliness of the place.

This was the closed, secretive China of the Gang of Four era, and a kind of double alienation was enforced on expatriates: it wasn't just the strange, rather forbidding country that was China, but non-Chinese people had to live in the San Li Tun ghetto, and were allowed no contact with the Chinese. Consequently, although this is Amélie's Chinese novel, China is in effect absent from it. Reading Le sabotage amoureux, Amélie's father Patrick was stunned by the level of understanding that his five-year-old daughter had of Chinese politics.

In Hygiène de l'assassin, puberty is seen by Tach - and Nothomb has emphatically stated 'Prétextat Tach, c'est moi' - as a kind of fall ('le pire des maux': 'the worst of evils'). She saw age in Hegelian terms, with childhood the thesis, puberty the antithesis, and adulthood the synthesis. In Le sabotage amoureux, the Amélie character says: 'J'ai toujours su que l'âge adulte ne comptait pas : dès la puberté, l'existence n'est plus qu'un épilogue': 'I've always known that adulthood didn't count: as soon as puberty comes, existence is no more than an epilogue.' Only in 2002, with Robert des noms propres, does she state that happiness is possible in adulthood. For the moment, though, adulthood is lived in parentheses, and is not real living at all. Adults are fallen children.

In China, Amélie is free in the ghetto, where the children play at war with weapons of urine and vomit, those from East Germany against the rest. It is a rather bleak vision, but tempered by Nothombian humor.
Ni d'Ève ni d'Adam (2007)

Stupeur et tremblements (1999) is Nothomb's third Japanese novel, and describes the misadventures at work she underwent during the second part of her stay when she returned to Japan to refind the country of her birth. The title Stupeur et tremblements is close to Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling, the title chosen for the English translation, and alludes to Kierkegaard's third stage of human existence. This is the religious one, but outside of conventional religion, beyond reason, a world of fear and trembling.

Nothomb has stated that it wasn't her intention in this book to criticize Japan, but the horror of a modern system that crushes the individual. She had a contract for a year with a huge import-export business, and in spite of the humiliating and insulting nature of her time there - particularly in the last seven months - she chose to honor her contract, as any Japanese person would have done. She fictionalizes the names involved, apart of course from herself, whom her fellow workers call Amélie-san.

Normally, even a one-year work contract in Japan is - paradoxically - for life. There is a Japanese word - madogiwazoku, or 'window-seat tribe' - used to describe employees that companies no longer have any use for, but don't sack them or make them redundant - they just shun them, make them feel dishonored, and give them a seat by the window with nothing to do but stare out of it. This situation doesn't normally occur until years have elapsed, of course, but Amélie-san, in a period of just five months, is reduced to cleaning the toilets.

Saito, Amélie-san's superior in the pecking order, initially gives her a letter to write, then rips it up, ripping up many other attempts without looking at them, and he later throws away many other thousand-sheeted photocopying attempts again without looking at them. But before this, she becomes the tea woman, making a grave error by suggesting to businessmen she serves at a meeting that she can speak fluent Japanese. She is passed on to Fubuki Muri, who - exceptionally - is a woman who has risen in the work ranks, but who is unmarried at the age of 30, which is shameful, and who lives her own hell of psychological torture as a result of it. Inevitably, perhaps, Amélie-san receives the brunt of Fubuki's frustrations. Committing error after error, and insulted by Fubuki constantly, Amélie-san's descent to the office lavatory attendent - on the 44th floor, the same one where the elevator 'spat' her out at the beginning - is rapid.  And all this because the 'stupid' Amélie-san has been astute enough to see the chinks in Fubuki's armor.


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