“Hygiene and the Assassin” by Amelie Nothomb

“Hygiene and the Assassin” by Amelie Nothomb  (1992) – 167 pages – Translated by Alison Anderson

 Amelie Nothomb’s audacious novel “Hygiene and the Assassin” is about Nobel literature prize winner Pretextat Tach.  Some of the novels the ficticious Pretextat Tach has written are “Pearls for a Massacre”, “Crucifixion Made Easy”, “Prayer on Breaking And Entering”, and “Dying without Adverbs”

Like those of other Nobel literature prize winners, nearly every sentence that Tach says is taken as a pronouncement.  Journalists from nearly every major newspaper and literary magazine or review want to interview him.  But even Nobel prizewinners aren’t always what they seem;  Pretextat Tach is a mean-spirited and pretentious man, and above all he hates women.

 Tach’s literary hero is French writer Louis-Ferdinand Celine.  Everyone who holds literature in high esteem must come to terms with Celine.  Celine wrote at least two of the great novels of the twentieth century, “Journey to the End of the Night” and. “Death on the Installment Plan”.  Yet in many ways Celine was a despicable person. who was a fascist and rabid anti-Semite.  The lesson Celine’s life teaches us is that being a fine writer does not necessarily make a fine person.

 Back to “Hygiene and the Assassin”, Tach has announced that he only has two weeks to live, and journalists from all over the world have requested private interviews with him.  Five journalists are chosen.   Nearly the entire novel “Hygiene and the Assassin” is the dialogue of these five interviews. Tach makes short work of the first four interviewers, all men.  Sensing that these men have only a casual limited interest in literature at best, he attacks them and they leave defeated.  The fifth interviewer is different, a young woman named Nina who has closely read all of Tach’s novels and proves more than equal to going up against the Nobel literature prize winner. She earns the rabid misogynist Tach’s grudging respect, because he was bored by the first four lightweights they sent in.  She successfully counters Tach’s hatred of women not with clichéd feminist arguments but with her own unique intelligent reasoning.    

 Although “Hygiene and the Assassin” was only translated into English in 2010, the novel is actually Amelie Nothomb’s first novel which she wrote when she was 25 in 1992.   What an original, daring, and stimulating first novel this is! I get the idea that Amelie Nothomb with this novel is saying to the world that not even Nobel prize winners intimidate her. To make her first novel almost entirely dialogue is a high-wire act by Nothomb that completely succeeds.   I was hanging on every word of the dialogue, especially in the conversation between Nina and Tach,.   I rate “Hygiene and the Assassin”  as one of Nothomb’s best novels along with “Fear and Trembling”, “The Character of Rain”, and “Loving Sabotage”.  Forget the dismal New York Times review of this book as it must have been written by one of those lightweight journalists above.  There are plenty of very positive reviews of “Hygiene and the Assassin” out there.

Although Amelie Nothomb is starting to be read here, she is still much better known in the rest of the world than she is in the English-speaking countries.  I suspect she herself will soon be the deserving subject of Nobel literary prize speculation after Haruki Murakami gets the award.  She’s been averaging one novel a year for almost twenty years now, so I’m hoping she will have a new novel for us this year.               

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2 responses to this post.

  1. What a different theme for a novel! And the name – Pretextat! I feel this is a novel on novels, writing about writing as well… And writing this at 25 is not a small achievement… Great review 🙂

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  2. Hi Birdy,
    Yes, this is very much a novel on writing novels, about literature itself. One of my favorite novels of all time is “Pale Fire” which is by Vladimir Nabokov and is about writing novels. That is what I like about Amelie Nothomb; she isn’t afraid to be original, and she has the intelligence to pull it off. I too have thought about Celine a lot; his novels are great, but the person is despicable, although there does seem to me some mental illness in him that may have caused some of the problems.

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