Amelie Nothomb’s Hygiene and the Assassin

Jeff VanderMeer • December 19th, 2011 @ 1:48 pm • Book Reviews

The “bolt out of the blue” for me in 2011 was reading Amelie Nothomb’s Hygiene and the Assassin,which, along with Michael Cisco’s The Great Lover, will no doubt influence me for some time to come.

Europa Editions published the English-language edition of Nothomb’s first novel in 2010; it was originally published in France in 1992. It concerns a Nobel Prize-winning misanthrope of a novelist named Pretextat Tach. Not only does Tach spout foul racist things, he also has a low opinion of women—his most bombastic and ridiculous statements concern them. At the same time, he has a sharp and penetrating mind, and as a conversationalist is a witty and disturbing match for almost anyone. When he’d diagnosed with cancer, he for the first time allows the press to visit to his home. One by one these interviewers succumb to Tach’s verbal traps and leave in disgust, horror, or tears. That is, until a female reporter visits who has done more than the usual homework on her subject. The battle of wills becomes an entire war, involving Tach’s creative output and the terrible facts of his past. Indeed, at the core of the novel is a vile act and an associated act that breaks conventions and taboos. Well, okay, so much of Decadent literature reached toward such things, but in a more modern idiom, there’s a fresh shock of the transgressive. However, the novel is also intensely, darkly funny—at times laugh-out-loud hilarious. The observations about book culture and writers are, as they say, priceless.

What struck me about Hygiene and the Assassin is just simply that it takes on difficult and taboo subject matter and challenges the reader to pass moral judgment, perhaps even to toss the book across the room, and it also makes the reader uncomfortable even while you’re laughing…and then later, challenges in a much bleaker way.

It’s also a kind of demarcation point for those modern readers who, I think in part conditioned by the seeming “action” imbued by facebook and social media, which is actually not action so much as just more words…equate the actions in a book, the characters in the book, with actual real-world actions and people. Readers who think that the author is always endorsing the actions of the characters no matter what won’t like this book. Readers who think that crimes on a page are somehow roughly e-equivalent to meat-world crimes won’t like this book.

But I liked this book precisely because it was written without regard for what anyone might think. It isn’t prettied up. It isn’t given a nice wrap-up at the end to help the reader out. It just is what it is, telling the story it needs to tell. It’s sharp, incisive, mean-spirited, and often speaks the truth. You get to choose how you feel about what happens. When so many books seem so eager to please the reader, and to reaffirm what the reader already knows, Hygiene and the Assassin was refreshing. It felt like something without all the edges sanded off. Now, certainly, some might say it’s just sensationalistic, and perhaps they’d have a point. But at the moment I encountered it, the novel was an important reminder that writers need to turn their internal censors entirely off when writing to produce the best possible fiction. Nice is often just another word for mediocre.

4 Responses to “Amelie Nothomb’s Hygiene and the Assassin”

  1. PhilRM says:

    I saw that in my local bookstore the other day and waffled over it (I wound up picking up Jan Morris’s Hav instead), but this review has convinced me to give it a read. Thanks!

  2. PhilRM says:

    Ack! Sorry for the unclosed italics.

  3. Jason Carney says:

    Thanks for the review! I took your advice and read it, and I’m glad I did! Pretextat Tach and Nina’s back and forth was both entertaining and disturbing. The cowling/”flaming” of the first three journalists was an interesting start. As much as this is a “readerly” novel, as you describe it–i.e. it teaches us about how to read fiction–it struck me more as a “writer’s novel.” This book has a lot to say about creating fictional characters. In the context of the kind of existentialist philosophy that informs this novel, to characterize someone is to kill them, to take away their freedom to be whatever they want to be (I’m thinking of how John Fowles didn’t finish _The French Lieutenant’s Woman_ so that his characters could be “authentic”); thus, H. and the Assassin is kind of a Künstlerroman, with Nina being the artist who comes to maturity by killing Tach. I get the sense that Tach is kind of Nina’s teacher, teaching her how to love her characters violently, which is strange way of putting it but which it what fiction writers do. I think. Thanks again!

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