Review: Hygiene and the Assassin, by Amélie Nothomb

>>Published (in French): 1992

>>Published (in English): October 2010

>>Finally got around to it: November 2010

There’s not much in this world more delicious than good dialogue. Banter, a back and forth that takes on a life its own, never feeling forced, driving a story to places you’d never expect to be taken. It’s not often a novel comprised of almost exclusively dialogue-driven passages has such a life to it, a three-dimensional quality that excessive detail would only hamper. But that’s exactly the situation with Nothomb’s Hygiene and the Assassin. This is the first of Nothomb’s works, published in 1992 when she was 25 years old. In October of this year, Europa Editions released the English version of the text to North America, and it’s a hell of a translation.

Conversational dialogue in small amounts lives or dies by the quality of its translation. In the case of Hygiene and the Assassin, the book itself is predicated on a tight rhythmic structure that required a pitch-perfect translation—which is exactly what it got. There’s not a word that doesn’t fit exquisitely with the flavour of the piece, which, to be honest, is sometimes difficult to stomach yet impossible to turn away from.

The story is simple: an obese, misogynistic, hate-filled Nobel Prize winning recluse of an author is dying of cancer at a very late stage in life, having completed his life’s work (leaving one novel unfinished, as any self-respecting author should, he claims). The author, Prétextat Tach, decides to allow a small group of journalists to interview him—the first interviews he has ever had. None are prepared for the level of perversity inherent in this one individual.

An example—Prétextat Tach on the persona of the Writer:

“The hand is for pleasure. This is devastatingly important. If a writer is not having pleasure, then he must stop immediately. To write without pleasure is immoral. Writing already contains all the seeds of immorality. The writer’s only excuse is his pleasure. A writer who does not have pleasure is as disgusting as some bastard raping a little girl without even getting his rocks off, just for the sake of raping, to commit a gratuitously evil act.”

One by one, the first few journalists are eviscerated by the reclusive author, and by the halfway point of the book’s sparse 167 pages, only one remains. Her name is Nina, and she knows more about the author than he would ever suspect. From this point on the book is a single, unbroken 90-page chapter as Nina and Prétextat tear each other apart in a beautifully choreographed verbal sparring.

To say anything more would be a disservice. It is a disturbing book, a sometimes difficult to stomach read, but also one of the most compelling and expertly written stories I think I’ve ever read. I admit—I am a sucker for a conversation, and to have one build its momentum for nearly 90 pages, continuously increasing the level of animosity that exists between the two while simultaneously fostering a perverted respect that can only build between two people who want nothing more than to see the other left weak and without recourse, it was something special. This is the very definition of a one-sitting read. Highly recommended.

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