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.
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.