(… I am at a loss for words.) When it comes to running personal, less than urgent errands, I get easily distracted. So today when I was “running errands”, I very consciously detoured to (where else?) the bookstore. When I saw the title Hygiene and the Assassin by Amelie Nothomb, I couldn’t help myself from obnoxiously reading two entire chapters before walking over to the cashier. With my errands and other quite important duties to complete on hold, I finished the book in one setting. And… I am still at a loss for words. By the time I got to the very last punctuation in the book, I felt extremely dumbfounded and profoundly exasperated at the same time.
Pretextat Tach is a Nobel Prize in Literature winner who has been diagnosed with the rarest form of cancer. He is 83 years old and has two months to live. Subsequently, journalists from all over Europe and the world are fighting to reserve interview spots with the world’s most renowned novelist. However, ever since Tach stopped writing twenty-something years ago, he had lived in deliberate seclusion with profuse emotional belligerence towards humankind. His massive obesity keeps him locked in his wheelchair and the only time he goes out is when he goes grocery shopping.
One by one the chosen journalists visits Tach with naive optimism that he will aptly and kindly answer their questions. Of course, Tach’s misogynistic, racist, and misanthropic attitude fails every journalist from even holding a coherent conversation. Tach tackles each of them with boastful remarks and it is by mere verbal abuse thrown at their faces that desperately drives them out of the house. It is the first half of the book where I laughed out loud. The entire time. Truth hurts. But brutal truth can be humorous. Then comes Nina, the final and only female journalist, who dominates the last half of the book. Humor stops instantly. Nina’s clever and witty questions slowly but surely unveil the true Pretextat Tach deeply buried in his impenetrable layer of skin (well, lard, as he claims himself to be). Everybody has a story to tell, but all the underlying implications of Tach’s stories and his conversation with Nina is unorthodox yet very conventional.
Every conversation in the book is astounding, humorous, thought-provoking, ingenious, cynical, sophisticated, and just crazy all at the same time. As one critic put it, “Nothomb takes us along an electric current of perception”, and I could not agree more. I’m not even sure if I even like the book; but I cannot recommend highly it enough. Nothomb has permanently changed the way I read, nonetheless, the way I perceive literature. Do you remember the feeling you had when you saw the scene from Mean Girls where Regina gets hit by a bus? Just a.. “wtf????” But comes Cady’s voice that says “just kidding”? Well, it’s that feeling (not Mean Girls) when you put down the book… except there is no “just kidding”. Oh, and did I mention the author was only twenty-five when she wrote it? My point is, reading this book was worth losing time to run my errands.
dee’s rec: 5/5