Published (in French): 2005
Published (in English): 2007
Finally got around to it: August 2011
She would be God in every respect. It was no longer a matter of creating the universe: too late, damage done. Basically, once creation was accomplished, what was the task of God? Probably that of a writer when his book is published: publicly to love his text, to receive compliments, jeers and indifference on its behalf. To confront certain readers who denounce the work’s shortcomings when, even if they are right, it would be impossible to change it. To love it to the bitter end. That love was the sole concrete help that one would be able to bring to it.
Concentration. It’s the reality television program that sweeps the world in Amélie Nothomb’s Sulphuric Acid: a genuine death camp where relentlessly vicious prison guards—kapos—feed their innocent, plucked-off-the-street prisoners flavourless, colourless gruel, strip them of their identities, beat them at random, then execute them one by one. The ratings shoot through the roof, and Concentration quickly becomes television’s greatest hit—not only for the excitement that death can inspire amongst a viewing audience, but because of a young woman known first as CKZ 114, then as Pannonique.
Sulphuric Acid is several things at once: it is a dark satire of our reality TV-obsessed culture that seems to derive the most pleasure from backstabbing, embarrassment and defeat; it is a commentary about identity—which aspects of identity are most sought after and embellished in a fame-centric society, and which are carved away and pushed beneath the rug; and it is a further exploration into a favourite topic of Nothomb’s—the individual as God, or at the very least, the creator in charge of their existence and the existence of others.
The final point is the most salient. Through Pannonique’s experiences, Nothomb explores the individual without identity—and not just void of identity the way a prisoner or captive might be regarded in the eyes of a stranger, but to have had that sense of self removed for the purpose of entertainment. From the very beginning, Pannonique is given a quiet demeanour that, when paired with her unique appearance and one kapo’s somewhat confused lust for the prisoner, catapults her into a position of influence. She’s immediately thrust into the role of an icon—a target for the kapos, a curiosity for the excitable public, and a symbol of hope for her fellow captives. As the sole prisoner willing and able to reclaim her name—and with it a part of her identity—Pannonique begins to see herself as an agent of change. Not just within the confines of the death camp, but to inspire enough self-loathing in the viewing public as to challenge what has come to be accepted as “entertainment”:
‘Viewers, switch off your televisions! You are the guiltiest of all! If you didn’t provide this monstrous programme with such a huge audience, it would have gone out of existence long ago! You are the true kapos! And when you watch us die, your eyes are our murderers! You are our prison, you are our torture!’
Sulphuric Acid is a departure from some of Nothomb’s more directly self-reflective work that feels more in line conceptually with Hygiene and the Assassin as an investigation into the purposes of morality and the role icons play to our cultural inventiveness and well being. Still, the theme of the individual as God continues to be of fascination to Nothomb, as it was in The Character of Rain, and she finds new ways to challenge her philosophical approach through the positioning of Pannonique as less an avatar for herself and more of a question to the public at large: what are we willing to part with to be entertained?