Before cracking the spine of Amélie Nothomb's playful noir, beware: Your credentials as a reader, your folly in having allowed yourself to grow up and, for at least half of you, your tragic misfortune in being a woman, will be called much into question within its pages. But don't let this deter you. Nothomb's novel is whip-smart and gruesomely funny, and has its misogynistic protagonist literally grovelling by book's end.
The author of more than 20 novels, including Fear and Trembling and The Character of Rain, Nothomb published Hygiene and the Assassin in 1992 when she was just 25. In a translation by Alison Anderson, it now becomes available to readers in English.
It is the story of Prétextat Tach, prolific author, Nobel laureate, infamous recluse and dying man. At news of Tach's imminent demise, would-be interviewers flock to him. Five are granted an audience. One by one, they enter Tach's inner sanctum, and, one by one, they emerge, deflated, defeated and showing visceral manifestations of their verbal beatings. With the outbreak of the Gulf War looming in the background, Tach leaves each would-be opponent bloodied and burned - and no closer to answering the question, "Who is Prétextat Tach?"
The dying novelist is presented as a giant slug of a man. Morbidly obese, hairless, too fat to walk or bathe himself, he sits in his wheelchair throne like a grotesque baby: sharp of tongue but spongy of behind. Each night after bath time, he feels "so infantile" he "plays," and play is precisely what he does with his first four interlocutors.
But when journalist No. 5, a woman, takes out her notepad, Tach finds not only someone who has read and absorbed every one of his 22 impenetrable novels, but also an alarmingly thorough student of his life and work. Having commanded at least his attention, if not his respect, she confronts Tach about bizarre scenes from his childhood, scenes that render his infantile appearance all the more disturbing.
Each successive encounter with the great Tach is conveyed almost exclusively through dialogue, which volleys back and forth with barely a line of description to interrupt it. Nothomb is a master at having her characters do the work of storytelling, with every morsel of action and reaction encapsulated in their words. There are also knowing winks to the reader, whose performance is continually placed under the microscope. Tach refers often to a "frog-man" form of reading, in which "the pseudo-reader, clad in his diving suit, can swim perfectly impermeably through my bloodiest sentences," too eager to reach the end to care for meaning. At each such accusation, you may find yourself rereading a sentence, wondering, Am I doing it right?
As with Daniel Pennac or Éric Laurrent, there are heavy doses of both caper and the macabre here. A cat-and-mouse tale with murderous intent, Hygiene and the Assassin skips the whodunit's traditional trail of clues and injects all its playfulness into one long reveal. Who is Prétextat Tach? His first name, of course, tells us he is not who he appears to be, and the answer to that question - the coda to this baby-man Nobel laureate's life - lies in the revelations of journalist No. 5. How do hygiene and an assassin come into it? Well that would be a spoiler, so you'll have to read it and see.
Becky Toyne is a freelance editor and publicist in Toronto. Her career in publishing began with Britain's Harvill Press, a publisher of literature and literary thrillers in English translation.