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Hygiene and the Assassin [Paperback]

Amelie Nothomb , Alison Anderson
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
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Product details

  • Paperback: 167 pages
  • Publisher: Europa Editions; Reissue edition (26 Oct 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 193337277X
  • ISBN-13: 978-1933372778
  • Product Dimensions: 1.5 x 13.3 x 20.5 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 494,711 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "And by his side rode loathsome gluttony 1 Jun 2011
By Leonard Fleisig TOP 1000 REVIEWER VINE VOICE
Format:Paperback
Deform'd creature, on a filthy swine;
His belly was up-blown with luxury,
And eke with fatness swollen were his eyne."
Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene, Book 1, Canto 4

I picked up Amelie Nothbomb's "Hygiene and the Assassin" on the assumption that it probably be a quirky book similar to Gourmet Rhapsody. I had what I thought were good reasons for the assumption: both were published by Europa Editions; both were first novels by young women writing in French; and both involved a famous and curmudgeonly protagonist on his death bed searching for some final memory (or closure if you will) as they exited this earthly veil. I was wrong. Where Gourmet Rhapsody had its dark moments, Hygiene and the Assassin starts dark and gets darker. Yet Nothomb has managed to write a book that kept me turning page after page until I was done.

The `hero' of this tale is one Pretextat Tach. Tach is a world-famous author and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. He lives in self-imposed isolation in a small cottage in a village somewhere in France. As the story opens word has just gotten out that Tach has been diagnosed with a rare form of cartilage cancer and has just a few weeks to live. As happened in Tolstoy's final days, the `death-event' takes on the form of a media circus. Journalists from all over descend upon the village seeking a last interview with the dying legend. Each morning one journalist is assigned to enter the cottage for an interview.

As the first journalist enters for the first interview Tach is revealed to be a loathsome glutton. He is not just overweight, he is obese. He is squat, balding and, in his own words, singularly unattractive.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Amelie Nothomb's first novel 2 Dec 2012
By Omnes
Format:Paperback
When "Hygiene and the Assassin" was first published, critics didn't hesitate in calling the novel a work of genius, as much for the story's quality and prose than for the quality of its suspense. Its strength was such that some (men critics) doubted that a young twenty-five year old woman could be the author of such a novel. Who even went on to inspire an Opera.

Through five interviews, the reader finds out how Pretextat Tach, a writer who won the Nobel prize for Litterature but is both unpleasant and harsh, humiliates and bashes everything he decides to discuss, most of all the journalists who are interviewing him. For the first four interviews, the journalists bite the dust. But for the fifth...

Consisted of long, but inventive and powerful dialogues, that novel is easier to read if one reads it in long dives. Indeed the fifth interview goes on for half of the book and it is preferable to read it in one dive if you want to keep the tension during the reading.

As such, this novel is a great reading pleasure coming from a great writer.
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Amazon.com: 4.8 out of 5 stars  6 reviews
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Simple, elegant, intensely thought provoking. 17 Sep 2011
By StarGirl - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
This will be the first review I have written for Amazon and I am so compelled because the book, as previous reviewers have stated, is excellent. I am a diverse reader and like to read in many different genres - not all of them are serious literature. I mention this because, from the jacket description of the book and the reviews so far, a reader might get the impression that you need to have a doctorate in philosophy to appreciate this story let alone understand it. So I'll tell you straight up, I'm not sure I understand it, but I absolutely appreciate it. In fact, I might read it again all the way through as soon as I finish this review.

What makes it such a great book is that it is intensely thought provoking. What makes it such a great read is that it is written very simply. The premise might seem bland: the interview of a dying author by a number of hapless journalists. The content might seem daunting: it is a novel of ideas - no mistaking that. But more than this it is a novel of precious assumptions battling it out against one another and everyone, no matter what they like or know, has those.

The beauty here is that the author makes them tangible. Instead of using overblown language and overly dense literary references, the story is told in everyday speech, through dialogue between the characters. (Yes, there will be words that require a dictionary and some literary references but they do not jam the flow of the story if you don't know them). This makes the story accessible but at the same time complex. The author trusts the reader to allow their own feelings of disgust, of outrage, of horror to lead them through the story which removes it entirely from being a dry, overly intellectual, impenetrable piece of writing. In other words, readers who are a bit baffled by the philosophical back and forth will still be able to follow the story and in the end, at the conclusion, events force a satisfying thoughtfulness on the reader's part. It is unavoidable.

I think other reviewers have done a good job of outlining the complexity of the book. So I am making a case for its elegant simplicity in the hopes of encouraging the uncertain reader. If you like to feel things when you read, you will. And if you like to think when you read, you cannot help it with this book.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars "And by his side rode loathsome gluttony 31 May 2011
By Leonard Fleisig - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Deform'd creature, on a filthy swine;
His belly was up-blown with luxury,
And eke with fatness swollen were his eyne."
Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene, Book 1, Canto 4

I picked up Amelie Nothbomb's "Hygiene and the Assassin" on the assumption that it probably be a quirky book similar to Gourmet Rhapsody. I had what I thought were good reasons for the assumption: both were published by Europa Editions; both were first novels by young women writing in French; and both involved a famous and curmudgeonly protagonist on his death bed searching for some final memory (or closure if you will) as they exited this earthly veil. I was wrong. Where Gourmet Rhapsody had its dark moments, Hygiene and the Assassin starts dark and gets darker. Yet Nothomb has managed to write a book that kept me turning page after page until I was done.

The `hero' of this tale is one Pretextat Tach. Tach is a world-famous author and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. He lives in self-imposed isolation in a small cottage in a village somewhere in France. As the story opens word has just gotten out that Tach has been diagnosed with a rare form of cartilage cancer and has just a few weeks to live. As happened in Tolstoy's final days, the `death-event' takes on the form of a media circus. Journalists from all over descend upon the village seeking a last interview with the dying legend. Each morning one journalist is assigned to enter the cottage for an interview.

As the first journalist enters for the first interview Tach is revealed to be a loathsome glutton. He is not just overweight, he is obese. He is squat, balding and, in his own words, singularly unattractive. It becomes apparent quickly to the first journalist that looks in this case are not deceiving. Tach's personality is as disturbing as his appearance. In very short order Tach reduces the journalist, whose own pretensions are no match for Tach's, to a quivering, emasculated plate of aspic simply by describing in detail the type of food he indulges in. Two more journalists meet the same fate. During these failed conversations it becomes quite clear that Tach does not believe anyone has ever read, really read, his books. He is quite certain and says so with no small amount of derision.

Finally, one more journalist shows up and much to the chagrin of the established press the journalist is little-known and, even-worse, a woman. Given Tach's famed misogyny her colleagues have no doubt that she will meet a fate similar to their own. And this is where the book takes off. This last interview turns Tach's world around and the world of the journalist. It is clear that Tach has met his match and it is also clear that she is up to the task in part because she has actually read, really read, Tach's work and knows exactly how to speak to him. The gluttonous bully becomes the bullied for a while and the turnabout is quite abrupt and satisfying.

As the book continues through to its conclusion the reader sees the power balance shift back and forth between Tach and the journalist. Although the ultimate revelation and the ending seemed predictable once you get about two-thirds of the way into the book the conversation, the jousting between the two is compelling. There is a certain mystery at play here but Nothomb also manages to incorporate conversations about literature and the meaning of what we read and how we read into the book in an almost seamless fashion. The journey to the conclusion made for a very satisfying and enjoyable ride.

This was Nothomb's first book and there were some elements to it that highlighted that fact. A couple of sentences or passages struck me as though they were written more to impress than to inform or entertain. However, given the personality of the character's those passages probably reflected more of the characters' heightened sense of self than a young author's need to dazzle so this is a minor quibble at best.

As far as recommendations go I think I need only say that I immediately purchased another work by Nothomb. All-in-all this really was a book worth reading.

L. Fleisig
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars My Dear Sir: Prétextat Tach, Dialogue and the Absurd 1 Jun 2011
By The Christine - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
""When the imminent demise of the great writer Prétextat Tach became public knowledge - he was given two months to live - journalists the world over requested private interviews with the eighty-year-old gentleman. ... Monsieur Tach viewed his diagnosis [of the rare Elzenveiverplatz Syndrome, cartilage cancer] as a hitherto unhoped-for ennoblement: with his hairless, obese physique - that of a eunuch in every respect except for his voice - he dreaded dying of some stupid cardiovascular disease. "" (9-10)

And then the unsuspecting journalists begin to arrive for their long, sharp, demeaning lashings. Prétextat Tach isn't just a genius, he's a misanthropic, crazed blowhard.

It isn't every day you read something so unorthodox and joyful as to challenge you to remember why you fell in love with reading to in the first place. To begin with, tell me the last time you encountered a novel written purely in dialogue? I remember one. It was an old, faceless toss-out I found for 50 cents in a now-defunct used book store 15 years ago; I began yawning before page 10 and abandoned it to some lice-ridden fate. Now can you think of a novel, or any book really, that requires virtually no exposition and no more narrative to carry beyond than the paper on which it is written? Nothing comes to mind for me other than the Dialogues of Plato. Isn't that a rare compliment?

Europa Editions' recent - 2010 - translation of Hygiene and the Assassin, by Belgian Amélie Nothomb, into English is more a series of pure ideas than a novel. Any longer than 160 pages and it would likely have gone flat. The gall of someone undertaking to write a book about such a thing as a Prétextat Tach - hideous, obese, bigoted, misogynist writer 2 months out from death- solely through the vehicle of dialogue, banter, insults and verbal slaps is frightening.

As Tach himself opines to one of the journalists come to interview him, one must have balls, a prick, lips and a hand to write. And of course, as you would expect from a reclusive genius character, Tach's standards are considerably whopping, and they are racist, pathological and unrealistic. He sends the first three interviewers on their way, crying, vomiting, and shaking their heads. If there was one thing I didn't quite stomach completely, it was the extreme, visceral nature of their reactions to Tach. When Nina, the last journalist to interview him, arrives, he is disgusted by her womanhood (he is disgusted by women, period (no pun intended (did I just triple-parenthesize?!).)). Nina, however, does more than hold her own.

Ingenious dialogue that is suspenseful, smart, and brilliantly expository; insults that inclue; lopsided intellect that uses the first three journalistic buffoons as interlocutors just as unwitting and unaware of their childishness as Plato's; all this along with the interspersion of truth and logic among Tach's many baffling, unsympathetic notions and claims carry Hygiene and the Assassin to a surprising and delightful ending that raises questions about what, if anything, the meaning was and who, if anyone, was the winner.

"So, to get back to our balls. They are the most vital organ a writer has. If he has no balls, a writer uses his words in the service of bad faith. To give you an example, let's take a gifted writer, and give him something to write about. With solid balls, you get Death on Credit. Without balls, you get La nausée."
"Don't you think you're simplifying somewhat?"
"Are you, a journalist, serious? And here I've been trying, out of the goodness of my heart, to bring myself down to your level!"
"I never asked you to. What I want is a precise and methodical definition of what you mean by `balls.'"
"Why? Don't tell me you are trying to write some sort of Tach Made Easy for the general public?" (63)

"You know, there's always a handful of idle people - vegetarians, budding critics, masochistic students and other nosy sorts - who actually read the books they buy. I wanted to carry out my experiment on those people. I wanted to prove that I could write the worst things imaginable about my own person, without impunity: this deed of self-incrimination, as you so rightly describe it, is rigorously authentic. ... I can allow myself to stray dangerously close to the truth, and all anyone will ever see is metaphors. There's nothing surprising about that: the pseudo-reader, clad in his diving suit, can swim perfectly impermeably through my bloodiest sentences. From time to time he will exclaim with delight, `What a lovely symbol!' That is what you call reading. A marvelous invention, very pleasant to practice in bed before falling asleep; it calms the mind and doesn't even dirty the sheets." (117-118)

My favorite takeaways from the novel were Tach's excoriations of "frogman" readers and his vaulted odes to balls and ballsy writing. And by the way, I had none of the qualms with this translation by Alison Anderson that I had with her translation of The Elegance of the Hedgehog. I didn't feel that one translated seamlessly into English, and it was a bit rough around the edges of its expressions.

I enjoyed this almost in the way one would enjoy a parable cut out of a much larger, didactic, philosophical novel. It's very nearly Grand Inquisitor-esque (another massive compliment coming from someone whose literary hero is Ivan Karamazov). If you enjoy that high-flying sort of wonderful, "pointless" thing, you will relish Hygiene and the Assassin. If you don't, you may find it a tedious exercise in dictionary-flipping argumentation or even sophistry.

All of Nothomb's books are now on my to-read list. I somehow never made the connection that she was the author of Stupeur et Tremblements (Fear and Trembling, also an excellent movie).
5.0 out of 5 stars Amelie Nothomb's first novel 2 Dec 2012
By Omnes - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
When "Hygiene and the Assassin" was first published, critics didn't hesitate in calling the novel a work of genius, as much for the story's quality and prose than for the quality of its suspense. Its strength was such that some (men critics) doubted that a young twenty-five year old woman could be the author of such a novel. Who even went on to inspire an Opera.

Through five interviews, the reader finds out how Pretextat Tach, a writer who won the Nobel prize for Litterature but is both unpleasant and harsh, humiliates and bashes everything he decides to discuss, most of all the journalists who are interviewing him. For the first four interviews, the journalists bite the dust. But for the fifth...

Consisted of long, but inventive and powerful dialogues, that novel is easier to read if one reads it in long dives. Indeed the fifth interview goes on for half of the book and it is preferable to read it in one dive if you want to keep the tension during the reading.

As such, this novel is a great reading pleasure coming from a great writer.
5.0 out of 5 stars Thought provoking story by a young author 5 May 2011
By Susan Cross - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
I initially bought Hygiene and the Assassin because of the cover. I confess, I'm a sucker for a good book cover. When I read the jacket and learned that it was by a French author, translated into English, I was intrigued. And the fact that Nothomb was so young when she wrote it made it a must for me.

The book as translated is extremely well written with several quotes that can be lifted out of context and stand on their own. To me, that's an indication of carefully composed sentences. As the story developed it drew me in and the maze that the interviewer followed gave me no hint of whether or not she would find her way out. The ending caught me off guard.

I will definitely read more by this author.
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