17 November 2010

Péplum (1996): Amélie Nothomb in the 26th Century

Amélie Nothomb - the two final letters aren't pronounced - is a Belgian writer born in Japan who has written a book a year since 1992. Almost all of her works are short, and although she considers herself an outsider, she has gained great popularity worldwide, and in French-speaking countries in particular. Unlike many writers whose works often rehash the same ground, Nothomb's are all very different, although all display her quirkiness. Some of Nothomb's books contain strong autobiographical elements, but although the first person narrator in Péplum is called A. N. and is a writer, there can't be much Nothomb in the events of this book.

Péplum could have been a play, as it almost entirely consists of dialogue. At the beginning, shortly before entering hospital for a routine operation, A. N. is talking to an unidentified person, and remarks that  Pompei - buried under the volcanic ashes of Vesuvius in the year 79 - is the most wonderful gift to archaeologists,  and suggests that the eruption was not a natural occurrence, but performed by future time travelers to preserve the most beautiful example of an ancient city.

This conceit provides an excellent excuse for A. N. to have a long conversation about the future and the past, as she awakens from the hospital anesthetic to discover that she has been kidnapped, and is now in the year 2580: her captors are responsible for the very idea she has had, and are worried that there might be a disturbance if her thoughts are believed.

Most of the book is an intellectual sparring match between A. N. and Celsius, a very major scientist of his time, and whose one true love is Pompei. This is not a book that takes its central conceit seriously, and there is much humor in the verbal interchanges, but the main interest is in what the future looks like.  The book gets its title from the garment - a kind of apron - that A. N. must wear because clothing is outmoded: people wear holograms because they are relatively cheap, last a lifetime, and they don't interfere with any activities at all.  There are no longer any countries, just two 'orientations', the Levant and the Ponant - which correspond to east and west - and the whole population of the south has been annihilated. Surprisingly, perhaps, there is almost no mention of computers, although they have replaced all administrative jobs.

A. N., who sees Celsius as a mass murderer, repeatedly asks to be taken back to 1995, arguing that he can't kill her as she's already dead. And eventually, Celsius - a man of colossal pride and arrogance - loads her into the 'transplanter', fully aware that she will write a book about him.

But then, who will believe her?

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