Monday, August 23, 2021

Two by Amélie Nothomb (#WITMonth)

It's Women in Translation month! I had one unread Amélie Nothomb novel on the shelf, and I got another one from the library.


I read the library book first. Thirst is her most recent novel in English; it came out earlier this year. The French dates from 2019, but it isn't her most recent novel in French. (Well, she keeps busy.) 

Christ tells his own story, from his condemnation by Pontius Pilate until after his resurrection. He's wry and jokey about it until the pain doesn't allow that any more:

"The jailer said to me:
'Try to get some sleep. You need to be in good shape tomorrow.'
On seeing my ironic expression, he added:
'Don't laugh. It takes good health to die. Don't say I didn't warn you.'" [17]

"As to calling her Mary, [Mary Magdalene] that's out of the question. It's never a good idea to confuse your sweetheart with your mother." [27]

He discusses, wonders almost, about the nature of religious inspiration, of mysticism:

"It's no coincidence that I chose this part of the world...I needed a land of great thirst. No other sensation more eloquently evokes what I seek to inspire than thirst. That is surely why no one has experienced it as I have.
Truth to tell: what you feel when  you are dying of thirst is something you must cultivate. Therein lies the mystical urge. It is not its metaphor. When you are no longer hungry, that is called satiety. When you are no longer tired, that is called rest. When you cease to suffer, that is called comfort. When you are no longer thirsty, there is no word for it.
There are people who do not consider themselves mystics. They are wrong. It takes only a moment of extreme thirst to attain such a state. And the ineffable state when the parched man raises a glass of water to his lips: that is God." [34-5]
I thought Nothomb's handling of the psychology of Christ's moment of doubt was well done. (The "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" moment.) On the whole I thought it was a sympathetic portrait of Christ, and one that, while not orthodox, wouldn't necessarily offend a believer. (Though there are those believers who are easily offended.) The least orthodox moment was after the resurrection. Christ appears, but it's a distinctly non-bodily resurrection.
"To experience thirst, you must be alive. I lived so intensely that I died thirsting.
Perhaps that is what is meant by eternal life." [90]

It's a thoughtful and interesting volume and not what I expected. (Which is generally a good thing.)

But. There was some classical Greek in the book which was wrong. Christ distinguishes between why and how in Greek and then misspells how. I'm not sure what to make of that. (I looked and saw it was also wrong in the French.) Additionally Christ says, "Christ means gentle."[40] Maybe the actual Christ is gentle, though he claims not in the context. (Rather, it's mother who is gentle.) But the word doesn't mean that. It means the anointed one. 

On the other hand, while his Greek may be poor, he can quote Latin. (A language the historical Christ was less likely to know.) "Homo sum. Humani a me nihil alienum puto." "I am a man. I think nothing human is alien to me," is from Terence's Heautontimorumenos, and Christ paraphrases it twice. 

Tokyo Fiancée

My first experience of any sort with Amélie Nothomb was the movie version of Tokyo Fiancée. Before that she was just a name to me, but when the movie showed up for the film festival here in Toronto in 2014, I thought, oh, I'm curious about her, let's see that one. I usually try to read the novel before seeing the movie, but I didn't and just read it now. The novel came out in French in 2007, in English in 2009.

'Amélie,' the character, lived in Japan until she was five years old. Now twenty or so, she decides to go back to Japan to get in touch with her roots, learn the language. She's going to teach French to pay her way. 

Her first pupil is Rinri, the son of a well-to-do family of jewellers. She and Rinri get along from the start. He may be more interested in her than she him, but she definitely likes him. But his parents are suspicious of this footloose foreign woman (and his grandparents even more suspicious) and she has a roommate. Where to meet? "In love, as in anything, infrastructure is everything." [49] Eventually her roommate goes off for a trip; then his parents leave for a while. Rinri is capable of good cooking. (Though not always--when he tries Western dishes he fails.) They go on the sort of jaunts that young Japanese couples go on. Eventually Rinri, who has easy access to good jewelry, proposes with a ring and 'Amélie' accepts. Was this the right thing for her to do? 

Our 'Amélie' is also interested in writing. Is marriage compatible with a career as a writer? The novel is set in the late 80s, and 'Amélie' writes a novel with the same title as the first novel of the actual Amélie Nothomb.

The movie pushes events forward by twenty years, and while the first two-thirds of the movie corresponds pretty well to the novel, the endings are quite different. But both are pretty engaging.

I've now read four of Amélie Nothomb's novels, which might sound impressive except that they are all pretty short and they represent a mere 14% of her novels. Nevertheless...I'm going to make a sweeping generalization. 😉 She starts off with jokes--good jokes, they are pretty funny--but then she swerves into something more serious and the novels engage--in an interesting way--with more serious issues. (Mysticism, career, war, friendship.) Of the ones I've read, I thought Tokyo Fiancée was the best, but I will read more.

Both of these were ably translated by Alison Anderson.
"As always in my life I was the only Belgian." [25]
Most of Tokyo Fiancée takes place in Japan, but a bit of it takes place in Belgium, making it my entry for Belgium for the European Reading Challenge...


  1. wow! i didn't know you were a Latinist! i'm impressed... and a bit ashamed of my blurted out opinions, lol... the Nothomb sounds unusual, a little. i'll see if the library lists any of her books, tx...

    1. Years of Latin & Greek--that's why I made my living programming computers, of course...

      I've enjoyed them & they're quick reads typically.

  2. My library has a copy of Thirst! I put it on hold just to see what her writing is like. :)

  3. It seems incredible that she doesn't know the literal meaning of Christ. No likely possibility that she was somehow speaking poetically?

    1. I did wonder. I admit to being slightly put off already by the misspelling of πῶς. By itself I would have swallowed Christ=gentle and assumed it was a statement.

  4. As per usual, I neglected to read any women in translation in August. But my library has lots of her titles in hard copy available and will give Tokyo Fiancée a shot.

    1. I've enjoyed the ones of hers I've read & they're easy to get into as well.

  5. I'd love to read more of this author. Thanks for the heads up about these two books.

    1. I'm still exploring, but I'm finding her pretty good. As well as fun.