25 February 2011

Amélie Nothomb: Le voyage d'hiver (2009)

At the center of the brief novel Le voyage d'hiver (Winter Journey) is the relationship between Zoïle, Astrolabe, and Aliénor. Zoïle's occupation involves contacting people who have just moved house to discuss their energy 'needs', and he describes himself as 'vaguely' employed by the EDF (Électricité de France) and GDF (Gaz de France). He meets the young women Astrolabe and Aliénor in the course of a visit and is shocked that they have no heating in December and that their appartment roof is made of glass: they wear several layers of clothing and insist that they can afford no heating because buying the flat has taken up all their money. 

They are an odd couple: Astrolabe is beautiful but Aliénor has a harelip, foams at the mouth, eats anything put in front of her without knowing when to stop, and suffers from 'Pneux's disease', a 'benign' form of autism that is another invention of Nothomb's.  Zoïle assumes that Aliénor is an idiot,  but becomes increasingly preoccupied by Astrolabe. He knows from the beginning that the owner of the property is a certain A. Malèze, who is a novelist , so he starts to read her books and returns to the appartment to learn that Aliénor is in fact the author: her publishers treated her cruelly, so Astrolabe has chosen to be a kind of permanent literary agent-cum-nursemaid to her: Aliénor has to dictate her novels, and her illness is such that she doesn't care for personal hygiene, so Astrolabe even has to wash her.

Very quickly, Zoïle falls in love with Astrolabe, although she refuses to leave Aliénor out of her sight, and even their kisses take place under Aliénor's (re)searching gaze. Then he has an odd idea: they'll all take magic mushrooms. After this is done, he puts on the electronic music of Aphex Twin  (or Richard D. James) and they trip for eight hours. Aliénor just closes her eyes and absorbs her first psychedelic experience internally, while Zoïle and Astrolabe filter the experience through the physical world, seeing things far differently from Aliénor.

During the trip, Astobabe asks Zoile:

'Pourquoi cessons-nous de voir en grandissant?'. ('Why do we stop seeing when we grow up?'. )

Zoïle replies: 'Précisément parce que nous grandissons. Nous apprenons les dures lois de survie qui nous forcent à nous focaliser sur ce qui est utile. Nos yeux désapprennent la beauté. Grâce aux champignons, nous retrouvons nos perceptions de petit enfant.' ('Precisely because we grow up. We learn harsh survival laws that force us to focus on what's useful. Our eyes unlearn beauty. Thanks to mushrooms, we rediscover our perceptions as young children.')

I've already written a little about Nothomb's early childhood - the fact that physically she was a virtual cabbage for her first two and a half years following a breech birth, that she didn't speak a word and only made the slightest of movements in order to eat. Her books have suggested that life more or less ends at puberty, and adulthood is merely seen as a precursor to death. Le voyage d'hiver, though - incidentally the same title as Perec's short story mentioned below, and both authors of course are very much concerned with loss - appears to suggest a greater optimism about adulthood, although childhood is still a period in which 'real' life is played out. What's being said now is that hallucinogenic mushrooms, for instance, permit adults to revisit that childhood.

Zoïle remembers when he was tripping on the métro once, and was horrified by a man's tie: 'Comment avons-nous pu nous aveugler au point de trouver la laideur supportable? [...] Porter une telle cravatte, c'est une insulte, un attentat, un acte de mépris, ce comportement respire la haine, voila, ce type me hait, il hait le genre humain.' (How has it been possible for us to blind ourselves to the point of making ugliness bearable? [..] To wear such a tie is an insult, an attack, an act of contempt, this behavior stinks of hatred - that's it - this guy hates me, he hates humankind.')

The lucidity of tripping makes Zoïle arrive at a kind of Sartrean conclusion: 'l'enfer, ce n'est même pas l'autre entier: sa cravatte suffit.' ('hell is not even just the whole other person: his tie's enough'.)

However hell is other people for Zoïle, and he reads Astrolabe's stone(d) reaction to his sexual overtures as rejection. Astrolabe tells him that Gustave Eiffel designed the Eiffel Tower in the shape of an 'A' because of his consuming love for a young woman called, er, Amélie, so she inadvertently provides this perceived rejected lover with his apocalyptic plan.

Zoïle will go though airport security, buy a dutyfree bottle of champagne, pour it down the pan, smash it to leave him holding the jagged neck, with which he will slit the throats of the pilots, take control of the plane, and direct it straight at the Eiffel Tower.

And Le voyage d'hiver - unlike Perec's title - seems appropriate. The whole book is set in winter, there's a hallucinogenic trip and a planned airplane hi-jack, and Schubert's Le voyage d'hiver is what Zoïle will be thinking of - as a completely irrelevant thing to leave his mind almost blank - when he carries out his planned act of insanity.

The book is also very Nothomb: we have a claustrophobic largely one-room setting, ugliness and beauty, obsession, madness with (potential) violence, etc.

Amélie Nothomb? She never fails.

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