HYGIENE AND THE ASSASSIN, by amélie nothomb
reviewed by Andrew Keating
Amélie Nothomb’s novel Hygiene and the Assassin serves as a landmark in modern literature, marking the beginning of an extraordinary career through the beautifully disturbing and resonant character of Prétextat Tach, a Nobel-prize winning author who is equally enormous in stature as he is in ego. In the novel, a group of journalists have been granted permission – against Tach’s will – to interview the legendary and morbidly obese author who had been diagnosed with a terminal illness. One at a time, Tach runs each of the interviewers in babbling circles, causing each to break down under the weight of his lofty ideals and heightened self-interest. (One is unable to get much farther than a discussion of the proper recipe for a Brandy Alexander.)
Finally, the sole woman to interview the man, Nina, who claims to have read every word he had written, parries and thrusts through an elaborate system of bets and challenges to Tach’s intelligence and selfishness. Recognizing a formidable adversary, Tach’s disgust for the journalist quickly turns into respect. The result is the uncovering of a horrific truth about Tach’s childhood, which leaves the reader emotionally devastated and pitying the dying, feeble old fat man that the antagonist has become.
Perhaps the most triumphant aspect to Nothomb’s first work is that the entire novel is written in dialogue. There is no forced exposition, no flowery language that leads the reader into believing that Tach is as brilliant as he is cunning. There is a synchronicity between author and translator that makes for building each and every pound of Tach’s prowess, and the woman who tears him apart.
Nothomb also does as many writers do in early work: she wrote about writing. But unlike so many before and after her, Nothomb’s approach is not self-reflected glorification. In fact, it is harsh and at times quite frightening. At one point, Tach claims the only things needed to be a writer are “balls, a prick, lips and hands” which sound more like the prerequisites of a cheap prostitute than the greatest of literary intellect.
While Nothomb’s books tend to spread quickly through international markets, the Belgian writer’s first novel, Hygiene and the Assassin, was only translated into English in late 2010, though the original publication was in 1992. Despite the gap, her readers have been far from dissatisfied. Nothomb published a new book nearly every year over two decades, many of which were translated into several languages and earned her numerous awards.
The first English translation of Hygiene and the Assassin was published by Europa Editions and translated by Alison Anderson, who also translated Nothomb’s Tokyo Fiancee to much critical acclaim. Anderson demonstrates a deft knowledge of Nothomb’s voice and style, and successfully masters the difficult task of translating a 25-year old Nothomb’s brilliant dialogue of an octogenarian mastermind defeated on his deathbed.
Andrew Keating is Managing Editor for Cobalt Review.