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Review: Loving Sabotage, by Amélie Nothomb

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>>Published: 1993 (French); October 2000 (English)

>>Finally got around to it: April 2014

In 1974, I read neither Wittgenstein nor Baudelaire nor even The People’s Daily.

I read very little: I had far too much to do. Reading was fine for those underemployed creatures, the adults. They had to find something to occupy themselves.

As for me, I had important functions to attend to.

I had a horse that took three-quarters of my time.

I had crowds to awe.

I had a public image to maintain.

I had a legend to build.

And above all, there was the war: the terrible, epic war of the ghetto of San Li Tun.

Take a crowd of children of various nationalities, enclose them in a restricted space built of concrete, and then let them loose, without supervision. Anyone who thinks the kids will extend the hand of friendship to each other is an idiot.

My family’s arrival coincided with an international summit at which it was declared that the outcome of the Second World War had been mishandled in the haste of the moment. The whole thing had to be refought, but the essential remained: the Germans were still the Bad Guys.

***

If you’ve been reading this blog with any regularity over the past few years, you’ve no doubt become aware of my love for the Japan-born Belgian novelist Amélie Nothomb. The first book of hers I read was, incidentally, her first novel, though not the first of her works to be published in English: Hygiene and the Assassin. It remains one of my favourite books to this day, one of those precious few I feel a strong need to revisit every now and then.

Since first stumbling upon her work back in 2010, I’ve managed to hunt down a sporadic assortment of her works—whatever I can find translated into English via small hole-in-the-wall bookstores and, when in doubt, ordering from online resources. While it may not come close to the emotional heights of the delicious, visceral war of words that comprises her first novel, Loving Sabotage, the author’s second book and the ninth of hers that I’ve read, is no less a delight to read.

Taking place in the mid-seventies in a diplomatic ghetto in Peking, China, Loving Sabotage tells the tale of the second iteration of the Second World War, fought, as these things are, between the young children of the various diplomats living in the ghetto San Li Tun. However, in the midst of battle, new arrivals move into the ghetto: an Italian national and his family, including his daughter, Elena, a standoffish young girl who immediately becomes the centre of Nothomb’s private universe. More and more the author and narrator loses sight of the surrounding war effort as she fights to acquire the one thing she comes to desire above all else: the love and attention of Elena. And along the way, she learns both the cost of love—especially young love—and the price of obsession.

Much of Nothomb’s work is biographically surreal; she employs her unique upbringing as the child of two diplomats, and the associated travel and life experiences living abroad, as material she freely distorts through a lens that is equal parts innocence and naivety. Recently I’ve taken issue with novels that attempt to write from a child’s perspective—Claire Cameron’s The Bear being the most recent of these. The struggle I find in most novels that try to do this is that the voice never feels genuine—the authors become so entrenched in enacting a certain diction that decent characterization gets lost along the way. Room, by Emma Donoghue is another such offender, though I’ve vented enough about that title to last a lifetime. Nothomb, however, strikes the right balance in this regard; by writing with the tongue and words of an adult but through the ever-so-slightly surreal eyes of a child, she’s able to better “sell” the sense of shifting surroundings, of elements of a world being slightly skewed in one direction or another, away from reality. In Loving Sabotage, a bicycle is a horse, a discarded moving crate is a military hospital, and the fact that the Nepalese are the only ones in the world without a rectangular flag is reason enough to go to war (once the ghetto’s parents intervene on behalf of the East German children that is).

All of that is torn asunder, however, once Elena enters the scene. The author, once drafted as a pathfinder gathering reconnaissance on “horseback” for the local war effort, spends much of her family’s remaining time in Peking attempting to crack the icy exterior of a girl one year her junior yet seemingly stripped of all imagination; Elena is, in many ways, a sad counterpoint to the author. That Nothomb is so inexplicably drawn to her is a testament to the idea that opposites do indeed attract—but while one might be initially drawn to the other, such relationships are not meant to last. Where Nothomb the child is genuinely, romantically touched to her core via her imagination, destined to see the world always as something other than what’s directly in front of her, Elena is designed to see only a series of transactions—of relationships and actions to be massaged to meet whatever needs she might have.

Perhaps my favourite part of the novel, though, is the afterword, in which Nothomb describes how following the publication of Loving Sabotage, the real Elena attempted to get in touch with the author, ostensibly to set the record straight—to argue against her literary portrayal as a femme fatale interested only in herself. Nothomb’s response? She cites the memory of a seven-year-old belonging to both reality and the imagination, and defends herself thusly:

I refused this meeting: there was nothing to set straight.

In French, an old proverb says: “It’s only the truth that hurts.” Elena’s reaction could well be the proof that I invented nothing: if she was furious, it’s because this story is true.

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