28 January 2008

Amelie Nothomb - Sulphuric Acid

Amelie Nothomb has achieved great success - 15 novels, and a reputation for being slyly mischievous - by mining her peculiar youth and writing spare, crafted novellas about beautiful girls with an excess of empathy. She was born to the Belgian ambassador in Japan, which she used in Metaphysique des Tubes (The Character of Rain), and returned there when older to work for a Japanese company, which is the basis for Fear and Trembling. She writes with wit and precision, and claims to write 3 novels a year and publish one, which is plausible given the slightness of the volumes, generally about 120 pages each.

Nine of Nothomb's novels have been translated into English, and this is the seventh published by Faber in well-designed, neat editions. It's the first of those I've read, however, to have a completely fantastic plot, as opposed to a realistic one based in some part on the author's background. The setting is in the near future, when reality TV shows have progressed, or regressed, to such an extent that the logical extreme has been reached - a reality death camp, with 'guards' from volunteers, and 'prisoners' plucked randomly from the streets.

This might have been a nice conceit around the idea of the Stanford prison experiment, in which volunteers were divided into guards and prisoners, and encouraged to act out their roles, which they did with such enthusiasm that the experiment had to be prematurely halted. Nothomb doesn't develop the story in that way - in this world the parts are played for real, prisoners are actually executed, and guards arbitrarily victimise their wards.

The plot caused predictable controversy in France (and Belgium), and it's easy to see why. While some may say it's a satire on the excesses of celebrity culture and reality TV, it's very blunt, and besides that isn't Nothomb's main concern. Her themes are of small intimate encounters and uneven power in relationships, in this case of the love by one female guard for Pannonique, a slight, beautiful prisoner who becomes the main focus for the TV producers.

The concentration camp setting becomes just a background to this relationship, and one has to question why it is used. As a metaphor it's crude, and the threat of execution doesn't carry any weight for the reader. It seems to be a lazy device, and deserving of the criticism it has drawn.

In addition, Nothomb's depiction of 'love' is actually more of a schoolgirl crush. This was appropriate in some of her earlier works, set during the pre-adolescence of a pretty girl, but one wonders whether Nothomb has anything profound to say about more adult emotions. If so, it isn't in this novella.



woodscolt said...

Oh, I hated this, and it was lent me by my brother's girlfriend, who reads my blog, so I didn't want to be too critical of it. I thought Nothomb's connection of beauty and virtue was very odd and unpleasant - Pannonique radiating beauty and virtue like a renaissance Madonna, I either didn't get what she was doing there or I hated it.

I also thought her ideas of strength and compromise (on the part of the prisoners) were utterly crass; if you think about the way Primo Levi writes about the dehumanising moral aspects of the actual death camps, it's a pretty cheap analogy.

Phil said...

The beauty and virtue thing is throughout Nothomb. In her previous stuff it's fundamental, but it works because it's treated so lightly, and through the eyes of pre-pubescents or adolescents, whose narrow world-view we inhabit and buy in to.

I didn't hate this, as I know what to expect from her, but it certainly wasn't as profound as she intended - you can't just borrow a holocaust analogy to add significance, and it's grotesque to trivialise it as she does.