Sulphuric Acid, by Amélie Nothomb, trans Shaun Whiteside
Belgian chocolate aside, this is a Nothomb novel with not enough Nothomb
Chocolate runs through Amélie Nothomb's fiction. Since Nothomb is Belgian, perhaps her fondness for this motif isn't surprising. In one story, it causes a silent two-year-old to utter her first words; in another, an anorexic ballerina takes a mouthful to prove that she can still eat. And in Nothomb's latest confection, bars of chocolate are used to bribe and to keep starving prisoners alive.
Slim books easily digested at one sitting, Nothomb's novels are characterised by that most French of combinations: playfulness and intellect. Reading the Paris-based author's work feels like being entertained by a precocious child who is amusing and irksome in equal measure. In her fairy tale-like narratives, the wise child/teenager/woman at the centre is, you suspect, the godlike author in another guise.
Indeed, many of Nothomb's books draw on her life: her upbringing in Japan, her eating disorder. Sulphuric Acid doesn't, and that may be the problem. Pannonique is the beautiful, intelligent heroine whose "passion for the diplodocus has not left her with much time to look at herself in mirrors". On page one, this sublime creature is rounded up with others into a cattle truck and forced to be a contestant in a reality-TV show called Concentration.
In the death camp, hidden cameras show inmates degraded and tortured while the audience decides who gets voted off. Pannonique knows that while "revolt would be pointless, it would also be telegenic".
The key relationship exists between two young women who appear to be opposites. The prison guard Zdena torments Pannonique but also desires her, slipping her chocolate bars on the side. The audience despises the ugly, stupid guard, while saintly, suffering Pannonique is the undisputed star. When she asks viewers to vote for her death, the figures go through the roof.
Nothomb's fable has wry moments. Pannonique, with her "inner divinity", decides that she must take on the vacant post of God. When that backfires, she settles for being Simon of Cyrene. But it isn't an easy satire to pull off.
Nothomb displays her usual light touch, but her insights on media hypocrisy, celebrity and voyeurism are rather obvious. The story should be disturbing, but isn't. While Nothomb can be deliciously astute about "outsiders", here, characters and setting feel token. When she sticks to the smaller canvas of home or workplace, we accept Nothomb's whimsical world. In a concentration camp, it's hard to believe a bar of it.
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