In the land of quirky literature, it is sometimes difficult for a book to garner enough praise to gain it anything but the dubious honour of a loyal cult following. If her position in the French book charts is anything to go by, Amélie Nothomb’s work definitely appeals to a growing number of readers.
And it is definitely surreal. Prior to winning the ‘Grand Prix du roman de l’Académie française’ in 1999 for her fierce Fear and Trembling, she and her work were continually derided by critics who tended to view her work as flights of fantasy that were best left unread.
The question is this: is Nothomb still able to deliver the unique experience that endeared her to her judges over a decade ago?
‘This morning, I received a different kind of letter.’
One morning, Nothomb receives a letter from one of her readers, an American soldier called Melvin Mapple, who is fighting in Iraq. Horrified by the endless violence around him, he takes comfort in over-eating. Over-eating until his fat starts to suffocate him and he can barely fit into XXXXL clothes. Disgusted with himself, but unable to control his eating, he takes his mind off his ever-growing bulk by naming it Scheherazade and pretending that he is not alone at night with his flesh.
Although initially repulsed, Nothomb is fascinated and begins exchanging letters in earnest with Mapple.
Nothomb carefully unravelled the story from the start, developing the main characters gradually. Just fast enough to keep the story going, but not so fast as to be unrealistic. By the time Mapple started to get into the details of his life, I was hooked.
Whilst Nothomb is the narrator and plays a significant role in the novel, it is the character, Mapple’s story-telling abilities that come to the fore. The first clue we have as to this is his naming of his excess weight after the story-telling wife in Arabian Nights. For every instance that Nothomb’s character sits and tangentially contemplates her life and woes, Mapple’s gets to the heart of the issue he wishes to address in his letter.
And Mapple chooses his subjects carefully. His first letter uses strong, abrupt language to describe the war in Iraq. In later letters, he uses more nuanced language to write about his opinion of the invasion. But this criticism forms only a small part of his letters: his main focus is his weight. His size obsesses him, fascinates him, disgusts him at times and alienates him from a vast number of people, especially his slim colleagues.
In the army canteen, they mock him and his clinically obese colleagues.
‘So what did you do in the war apart from eat?’ they jeer.
They look down on the obese as undisciplined grotesques who pad themselves out with fat to make up for all manner of (supposed) deficiencies.
Mapple writes about these daily struggles to Nothomb, who ‘will not judge’ [him]. He gives a voice to a group that previously suffered in silence, and this voice is usually eloquent and compelling.
There are also moments when Mapple becomes repulsive, particularly when he starts to note down every calorie he has consumed in an attempt to make his body into a living art project.
The end of the novel spirals quickly out of control and into the surreal bleak comedy that made Fear and Trembling so exciting to read. Here, events move so rapidly compared to the middle section of the novel that I felt somewhat cheated by the neatness of the ending and how quickly it was wrapped up. Although that feeling was probably mostly due to my desire to have the two characters continue to exist and develop.
Experimenting with the epistolary style whilst interweaving her own private beliefs and experiences in asides to the reader; this is Nothomb at her best. She dwells on issues that have not received much press coverage, such as obesity in the U.S. Army and brings up issues that have been mentioned in the press. Such as her way of using surrealism and extended metaphors to lend weight to her work and, in some paradoxical way, to make it more real than it could otherwise have been.
Wild Night In: Win!
Read for the Read French Books and European Reading Challenges