Hygiene and the Assassin by Amelie Nothomb
(Europa Editions 2010)
Amelie Nothomb’s Hygiene and the Assassin is published in translation, from French to English by Europa, a publisher of a very varied, though quite literary output of European writers. It tells the story of Pretextat Tach, an 83 year old author and recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature, who in spite of having lived in obscurity for some time, has, in the knowledge that he is suffering from cancer and has only a couple of months to live, consented to be interviewed in his final days.
What we encounter on meeting him is a reclusive, misanthropic, misogynistic glutton who hasn’t written a word in many years. The initial interviewers are all sent packing by the Great Man of Letters, one literally vomiting after being subjected to the nauseating culinary details of the author’s voracious appetite. Cue, the entrance of a female journalist, Nina, who manages to pique the author’s interest if only because of the audacity of sending a female journalist to interview him. After some verbal repartee, Nina gets him to open up about why he no longer writes – every great author should have one unfinished novel and delves into his youth, discovering a bizarre philosophy on life and womanhood, which is ultimately the author’s undoing.
This is a work of spectacular imagination which focuses on a uniquely grotesque figure in Tach and illustrates the fact that not all great writers of the past have lived exemplary lives or been without character faults. The book makes amusing observation on literature and our consumption of it and in Nina offers us a female heroine, unafraid to doggedly pursue the truth behind Tach’s verbal obfuscations.
It is ultimately a comic work, which employs a beguiling array of verbal fireworks which entertain and delight. Hygiene and the Assassin should continue to shock and amuse and remain a classic for decades to come.