Saturday, July 9, 2011

Review: The Life of Hunger, by Amélie Nothomb

Published (in French): 2004

Published (in English): 2006

Finally got around to it: July 2011

Hunger is want. It’s a broader desire than desire. It isn’t the will, which is strength. Neither is it a weakness, for hunger doesn’t know passivity. He who hungers searches.

… In hunger, there is a dynamic that forbids us to accept its state. It is an intolerable want.


Placed chronologically between The Character of Rain and Fear and Trembling, The Life of Hunger is a bridge in a loose series of fictionalized autobiographies. Nothomb uses the end of her deified existence in The Character of Rain as a jumping off point, outlining the somewhat tumultuous, often dramatic and continuously experimental years of her childhood and teenage adolescence, as she was plagued with a hunger she could never satiate. Not just a hunger for food and sweets, as she describes in the books opening chapters, but for water, alcohol, love, admiration, devotion, and in the end, as she turns hunger from an element of lust into a tool for control, acute anorexia.

Travelling the world from Tokyo to Peking, Paris, New York, Laos, and back to Tokyo (with her job as a translator at the end of the book presumably segueing into the novel Fear and Trembling), Nothomb and her sister explore their desires for the many different experiences the world has to offer them. Whether it is the dangerous and enthralling amounts of alcohol consumed on their farewell-New-York bender or the literature Nothomb devours to keep her mind from atrophying while her anorexic body slowly dies, the language of hunger is ever-present in the diction used and the attachments forged.

Nothomb writes with a lust for embellishment in every action, however subtle it may appear to be. Her representative in the text—one suspects, a slightly skewed version of herself—exists as an awkward observer to the world and its rules. She never seems to fit into whatever mould she is presented with. However, instead of approaching this detachment with dour sentiments or revulsion towards others, she becomes an otherworldly curiosity seeker—as if an alien had been infected with human desires and not a trace of control or consequence. The result, which is present in much of Nothomb’s work, is a lyrical playfulness that stretches reality past its limits without devolving into brash caricature or unnecessary comedy.

Nothomb’s first novel, Hygiene and the Assassin, was an examination of an extreme personality without a conscience. It was both a study of depravity and of genius unfettered by restraints. Her later biographical works, though written through filters of extremes, tackle similar subjects in more personal ways. Murderous intent aside, there is a great deal of Nothomb’s personality in her first villain, Hygiene and the Assassin’s Prétextat Tach—details which she reveals through her close relationship with her sister, her almost unfathomable desire for sugar and alcohol, and the isolated, not quite developed sense of entitlement she associates with love.

In much of Nothomb’s work, the potentially unreliable narrators become the salient narrative strength; through their childish, occasionally ridiculous mannerisms and ways of seeing the world around them, Nothomb is able to cast a delicate mask over larger issues such as sexual abuse and violence, loneliness and isolation. Together such elements create an amusing, surreal and touching portrait of a young woman with a world of experience far beyond her years.

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