Hygiene and the Assassin [Why This Book Should Win the BTBA]
Similar to years past, we’re going to be featuring each of the 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist over the next month plus, but in contrast to previous editions, this year we’re going to try an experiment and frame all write-ups as “why this book should win.” Some of these entries will be absurd, some more serious, some very funny, a lot written by people who normally don’t contribute to Three Percent. Overall, the point is to have some fun and give you a bunch of reasons as to why you should read at least a few of the BTBA titles.
Click here for all past and future posts.
Hygiene and the Assassin by Amelie Nothomb, translated by Alison Anderson
Publisher: Europa Editions
Why This Book Should Win: Europa Editions publishes a ton of translations and deserves a victory; Nothomb was all of 25 when she wrote this; Nothomb has written 20-some-odd books and still doesn’t get the attention she deserves from American readers; She’s coming to Rochester days after the April 29th announcement, and that would be effing awesome if she won; most importantly, she deserves to win because of the passages below and the constant referencing of Celine.
I wrote today’s post.
This novel—Nothomb’s first, publishing in French in 1992, and just now available in English—may be the sharpest, funniest book on this year’s BTBA fiction longlist.
Here’s the basic set-up: Pretexat Tach (what a name!) is a Nobel Prize winning author, who is a recluse, and who is about to die. Because of his impending death, he agrees to be interviewed by a series of journalists, each one as moronic as the last. Tach tortures each of them in turn, berating them, humiliating them, and coming across as a total prick—but one who, despite (or maybe in part because of) his disgusting appearance, thoughts, and rants, is fairly entertaining.
Actually, instead of trying to describe the merits of this book—the way the final journalist undoes Tach, the way the plot feels all piecemeal until the last few moments when all the literary traps are sprung and the plot points braided together in a very tense, exciting way—I’m going to stop here and leave you with a couple examples of Tach’s awesome rants (and Nothomb’s stunning ability to come up with these, and Anderson’s skill at translating them).
Tach on how few people have really read his books:
“Those are the frog-readers. They make up the vast majority of human readers, and yet I only discovered their existence quite late in life. I am so terribly naive. I thought that everyone read the way I do. For I read the way I eat: that means not only do I need to read, but also, and above all, that reading becomes one of my components and modifies them all. You are not the same person depending on whether you have eaten blood pudding or cavier; nor are you the same person depending on whether you have just read Kant (God help us) or Queneau. Well, when I say ‘you,’ I should say ‘I myself and a few others,’ because the majority of people emerge from reading Proust or Simenon in an identical state: they have neither lost a fraction of what they were nor gained a single additional fraction. They have read, that’s all: in the best-case scenario, they know ‘what it’s about.’ And I’m not exaggerating. How often have I asked intelligent people, ‘Did this book change you?’ And they look at me, their eyes wide, as if to say, ‘Why should a book change me?’”
“Allow me to express my astonishment, Monsieur Tach: you have just spoken as if you were defending books with a message, and that’s not like you.”
“You’re not very clever, are you? So are you of the opinion that only books ‘with a message’ can change an individual? These are the books that are the least likely to change them. The books that have an impact, that transform people, are the other ones—books about desire, or pleasure, books filled with genius, and above all books filled with beauty. Let us take, for example, a great book filled with beauty: Journey to the End of the Night. How can you not be transformed after you have read it? Well, the majority of readers manage just that tour de force without difficulty. They will come to you and say, ‘Oh yes, Celine is magnificent,’ and then they go back to what they were doing.”
But really, the best section is this one on how Tach’s books are dangerous, how “writing is harmful”:
“There’s no comparison. Writing is not as harmful.”
“You obviously don’t know what you’re saying, because you haven’t read me—how could you know? Writing fucks things up at every level: think of the trees they’ve had to cut down for the paper, of all the room they have to find to store the books, the money it costs to print them, and the money it will cost potential readers, and the boredom the readers will feel on reading them, and the guilty conscience of the unfortunate people who buy them and don’t have the courage to read them, and the sadness of the kind imbeciles who do read them but don’t understand a thing, and finally, above all, the fatuousness of the conversations that wil take place after said books have been read or not read. And that’s just the half of it! So don’t go telling me that writing is not harmful.”