December 2010

Megan Doll

fiction

Hygiene and the Assassin by Amélie Nothomb, translated by Alison Anderson

The book is ubiquitous in France. For nearly two decades, Amélie Nothomb’s debut novel Hygiène de l’assassin has enjoyed prime display real estate in French bookstores everywhere. Set down when Nothomb was only twenty-five, the novel catapulted her to literary stardom when it was published in 1992. Since then, Nothomb, a perennial figure in France’s rentrée littéraire, has churned out a book a year. Eighteen years after its initial publication, an English translation finally opens the indelible Hygiene and the Assassin to American readers.

The novel opens by announcing imminent demise of Prétextat Tach, an obese, bigoted Nobel Prize-winning writer who contracted a rare form of cancer. “It was not without a certain sense of pride that Monsieur Tach learned he was afflicted with the dread Elzenveiverplatz Syndrome,” Nothomb writes, “more commonly referred to as ‘cartilage cancer,’ which the eponymous learned physician had individuated in Cayenne in the nineteenth century among a dozen or so convicts imprisoned for sexual crimes followed by homicide, and which had never been diagnosed since that time.” Inundated with interview requests the world over, Tach’s secretary Gravelin is charged with selecting five journalists who conform to Tach’s prejudiced criteria -- no reporters of color, no foreign press, no women’s magazines.

There is a classical, theatrical quality to Nothomb’s storytelling with its tightly focused plot, timeline and location. Spanning the five days it takes to complete each interview, the action never strays from Tach’s lair and the café across the street, where four of the journalists gather to drink and disparage one another. Tach’s decline coincides with the lead up to the Persian Gulf War, which, like an off stage battle in a Greek tragedy, receives the occasional mention in Tach’s largely abortive interviews.

One by one, Tach upbraids and revolts his interlocutors, skewering their pretensions and troubling their entrails with his eternal toffees and Brandy Alexanders. A notorious misanthrope (with a particular zeal for misogyny), Tach disposes of the journalists rapidly until the arrival of his final interviewer, Nina, who has been lurking offstage. Not only is she the sole woman to slip through Gravelin’s filter, Nina is also the only one of the five journalists to have read all twenty-two of Tach’s books: Crucifixion Made Easy, The Prose of Epilation, Gratuitous Rapes Between Two Wars, and, yes, even Tach’s unfinished novel Hygiene and the Assassin.

Through her careful reading of Tach’s work, Nina, the ultimate reader-detective, comes armed with a secret from the writer’s past that subverts the power dynamics at play in Tach’s other interactions. The interview quickly evolves into a showdown between reader and writer, opening into a series of meditations on what it means to do the work of either. “How many writers have taken up this career with the sole purpose of, some day, reaching a place beyond banality,” Tach wonders, “a sort of no man’s land where words are always virginal.”

Nothomb’s words are certainly fresh, if not virginal. A bold debut, Hygiene and the Assassin is blessed with lively dialogue spiced by Nothomb’s mordant wit.

Taste is in every way a central question in the novel; Nothomb exposes and exploits a humorous tension between Tach’s grotesque nature and his sense of aesthetic rectitude -- his desire to find meaning and even symmetry in his death. The formal cleanliness of Nothomb’s conclusion raises the question, however, as to who ultimately won the standoff: the reader or the writer.

Hygiene and the Assassin by Amélie Nothomb, translated by Alison Anderson
Europa Editions
ISBN: 193337277X
160 Pages