""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).