20 December 2010

Amélie Nothomb: Cosmétique de l'ennemi (2001)

Cosmétique de l'ennemi begins in a flight departure lounge where a delay is announced, and Jérôme Angust settles down to read a book, but is pestered by a man - Textor Texel - who refuses to stop talking to him even though Angust has made it quite clear that he's annoying him.

There are some similarities between this novel and Hygiène de l'assassin, one obviously being Prétextat Tach's name, and there is also the mention of revolting eating habits: when younger, Texel enjoyed eating mashed cat food - or rather, he hated it, but an enemy inside him forced him to eat it - and Tach enjoys such food as sardine oil, throwing the sardines away. Like Tach, Texel is a monster, a kind of torturer who insists that he will not leave Angust alone. Both Tach and Texel were orphans from a young age (also like Adèle in Mercure, and even Blanche in Antéchrista calls herself an orphan because her parents ignore her): rootlessness is significant in the Nothombian world.

Cosmétique de l'ennemi also has similarities to Les catilinaires, where Berdardin tortures Emile and Juliette by holding them prisoner every day when he visits them, only Texel's method is the opposite: Bernardin conveys his existential torment by silence, whereas Texel conveys his to Angust by logorrhea. Angust even uses the same words of Texel as Emil does of Bernardin: 'emmerdeur' ('ball breaker') and 'tortionnaire' ('torturer').

But Texel is much more than a ball breaker, and even more than a torturer: twenty years earlier, he held Angust's wife overnight in a mausoleum in Montparnasse Cemetery and raped her, and stabbed her to death ten years later, exactly ten years before the book is set. He demands that Angust kill him, but the horrified Angust screams for the police to arrest Texel. When the police arrive, they think Angust has had too much to drink during the flight delay, and ignore Texel.

That's just where things begin to get really weird. Texel tells Angust that the police ignored him because he doesn't exist as such: in fact, he's no more than a very different part of Angust himself. He proceeds to tell Angust all he knows about him, which is a great deal: so is Texel trying to send Angust mad, or is he already mad?

Many things in this book will remind the reader of Nothomb's familiar concerns - rape, confinement (the departure lounge, the mausoleum, and above all the prison of one's own mind), psychological torture and freedom, ugliness and beauty, murder, eating disorders, suicide, the hell of other people, orphanhood, the influence of the theater, intertextual references, the monster within and without, etc - but I've not read a book of hers that is as gripping or as terrifying as this.

Whether the reader sees it as a straightforward battle of madness versus sanity, Kierkegaardian asthetics versus ethics, Freudian id versus the superego, Jansenism versus free will, or anything else, this is a very powerful psychological novel.

And it's even been translated in English - as The Enemy's Cosmetic.


Snatch51 said...

Doesn't 'emmerdeur' as 'ball-breaker' just derive from 'shitter', or am I getting it all wrong?

Next I have to declare an interest here as I love sardine oil, and happen to have inside knowledge that the Doc is not a fan.

His commentary on the book on the other hand would make me very keen to read it! Snatch51 is a philistine who just glugs down improbable amounts of yank beer...but maybe one day.

Dr Tony Shaw said...

Snatch51 asks "Doesn't 'emmerdeur' as 'ball-breaker' just derive from 'shitter', or am I getting it all wrong?", which is a valid question. He (an Englishman) continues "Snatch51 is a philistine who just glugs down improbable amounts of yank beer", which I think makes it doubly valid.

A long time ago, shortly after living for two years in France and spending probably far more time than I should have studying popular French expressions, I had a conversation with a young woman studyiing for a Masters in Sociology, who seemed enthusiastic about the idea I had for an article in a sociology journal such as the now defunct New Society.

I never got round to writing it, but - on an analogy with Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and London - it was to be called 'Shitting and Pissing in France and England', and to be based on my central (and very simple) thesis that the French tend to eat a lot, whereas the English tend to drink a lot (you only have to compare the size of French bar toilets with their English equivalents), and these two facts are reflected in the popular expressions used: the French tend to concentrate on the ass and its end product, but English slang concentrates more on the effect of drinking on the bladder. Now, Snatch51, you suggest 'shitter' as a translation of 'emmerdeur', but how would you translate 'tu m'emmerdes'? 'You make me shit', perhaps, but isn't 'You're pissing me off' more English? And isn't 'Va chier!' better translated as 'Piss off!' rather than 'Go shit!'?

'Pissed as a newt' can be rendered as 'pété comme un coing' (literally 'farted as a quince'), or even 'rond comme une huître' ('round as an oyster'), but you see what I mean about the French and their concentration on the ass and food?

Unfortunately, though, my thesis probably falls down today as in the last few decades we have seen the appearance of the now common 'arseholed' and 'pissed as a fart'. But that last expression mixes the two, so maybe a modified version of my thesis - to allow for historical change (a greater interest of the English in food) - is all that's needed?

Dr Tony Shaw said...

Just to add that Nothomb is very well worth reading. I'll be in France during the rentrée, so I look forward to reading her latest book, due out in August as usual. Her writer friend Frédéric Beigbeder - well known for being arrested for snorting coke from a car hood in Paris as well as winning the prestigious Prix Renaudot for Un roman français - says it's called Transcendance des champignons and involves taped conversations Nothomb made of the effects of various psychedelic substances. Nothomb is certainly very interested in magic mushrooms, and has all but admitted that she has tried them, so this seems to make sense.

But then, Beigbeder himself published a book about the effects of the 'love pill' MDMA, called Nouvelles sous ecstasy ('Short Stories under Ecstasy'), and oddly enough I can find no references to Nothomb's Transcendance des champignons apart from what Beigbder has said about it. So is Beigbeder (who is something of a clever clown) just, er, taking the piss?

Snatch51 said...

Dr Shaw is well ahead of me as usual, with a huge grasp of French argot.

I recall that nearly thirty years ago when I had read some Readers' Digest article and started to panic about prostate trouble, my splendid old Welsh GP Dr Parsons said "You're wondering whether to give up beer, but have you considered that good quantities of the stuff are flushing your waterworks through and keeping them healthy?"

From then on I have been a complete lush whenever I've been able to afford it, and if anything has gone wrong I've probably been too pissed to notice.

Dr Shaw's point about the contrast between poky piss-holes, (France), and majestic piss palaces, (England), is well observed.

The health record of the French is good however, so either they flush themselves through with 'vin ordinaire', absinthe, Pernod and whatever else, or there is something about the grub. At least they eat, which we don't always get time for in England. Hmm, we'll have to look at this one!