Monday, March 17, 2008

If absurdity could kill: ANTICHRISTA, by Amélie Nothomb

Amélie Nothomb is a writer of Belgian origin, raised in Japan, and currently living -- I believe -- in Paris. I was introduced to her work by my friend Valerio, who has read all of her books in Italian; only a select few have been translated into English, the most famous of which, Fear and Trembling, was, I believe, once recommended by Oprah, either on the air or in her magazine, and was also made into a film. Nothomb's style might best be described as minimalist, if we used that term anymore. Her novels tend to be brief, pared down, sharp, clear, and focused. Having ingested a steady diet of Doris Lessing of late, who is the polar opposite, stylistically, from Nothomb, Antichrista was something of a shock in the swiftness of its narrative and in the corresponding sharpness of its insights. This is a book on which you can cut yourself.

Antichrista tells the story of Blanche, an aptly named sixteen year old political science student in Brussels who, until the novel begins, has been moderately content with the fact that she has no friends. While she occasionally longs for one in an abstract way, she is actually quite happy to lie in her room, either looking out the window or reading voraciously. When she meets the beautiful and charismatic Christa, also sixteen, also a student, she doesn't think for a moment that this girl could possibly find her interesting. Nevertheless, the two become 'friends' (and when you read the book you'll immediately understand the need for the inverted commas), with Christa insinuating herself into Blanche's home, Blanche's family, even Blanche's bed -- which is not nearly as kinky as I've made it sound: Blanche takes a folding cot while Christa takes the bed. Soon she has Blanche's parents eating out of her hand, and has made Blanche seem even more the wallflower in their eyes. She introduces Blanche to the world of student parties, where Blanche has her first "snog," only to have the prospect of anything further cut off by Christa herself, who at that moment insists on going home. All the while Blanche questions herself obsessively about her need for this girl whose cruelty increases exponentially. Blanche eventually has enough, and decides to rid herself and her parents of this intruder, leading to a grimly satisfying but also highly disturbing ending.

What distinguishes Antichrista is Blanche's voice, which seems to be both a combination of that of an exceptionally bright sixteen year old and Nothomb's own. I've seen many reviewers complain that Antichrista isn't quite up to the prose standards of Nothomb's other books, but I disagree -- I feel that she has placed herself squarely in the mind of a smart teenager, and I find the effect actually quite a bit more convincing than the voice in Nothomb's The Character of Rain (published in French as Métaphysique de Tubes), which purports to depict the consciousness of a pre-verbal toddler. There the effect was merely clever; here it is accurate and authentic. Who cannot relate to the joys and horrors of first kisses, and the realization that you are, at last, a sexual being?:

"In a mental notebook, I jotted down litanies of first names: Renaud -- Alain -- Marc -- Pierre -- Thierry -- Didier -- Miguel...That was the edifying list of boys who hadn't noticed that I suffered from a thousand off-putting handicaps. I'm sure that none of them has the slightest memory of me. But if they had any idea what they represented! Each one of them, with his banal and insignificant behaviour, had made me think, in the space of a kiss, that I was possible."

And Blanche remarks that if absurdity could kill, Christa and her parents would have died ages ago -- again, sounds like a convincing sixteen year old to me.

In what might be perceived as a stylistic flaw, Blanche's parents are first depicted as gullible, cruel buffoons who fall for Christa's charms and schemes while hatefully ridiculing their daughter to her face. But by the novel's end, they emerge as more finely drawn human beings, now filtered through Blanche's slightly more evolved consciousness. Some might argue that we never understand Christa's cruel motivations, but I would argue that it's almost impossible to divine the motivations of the young, especially girls. That sounds like a sexist remark, but I don't intend it as one. I mean it with a certain degree of admiration. Boys aren't quite as adept at manipulation, the subtleties of getting others to do what they want. When young boys fight, they often resort to fists or shouting; when girls fight, they often resort to words, to psychology, which, as we all know, are far more damaging than the strongest fists. How often do we truly know the motives of our tormentors? And isn't it just possible that the tormentors often don't know, either? In some ways, Antichrista reminds me of Margaret Atwood's Cat's Eye, another novel in which the secret lives of young girls are laid painfully bare. As in that novel, Antichrista has a moment in which the lightbulb comes on, the tables are turned, and the tormented becomes the tormentor. What I love about both books is that while one part of me cheers this turn of events, another part of me sinks, for self-knowledge is never all that it's cracked up to be.

Nothomb handles the religious imagery -- and in a book called Antichrista you knew there was bound to be some in there! -- throughout the novel in an extremely deft manner. She doesn't beat the reader over the head, even in the novel's final image, which could easily have become overdone. The whole book has a sense of lightness and swiftness, and at 107 pages, can be consumed in a sitting. It's probably best eaten whole.

"I don't understand why I'm obeying you," Blanche thinks after a particularly humiliating episode with Christa, in which she followed her friend's ever whim. Antichrista captures that drive to belong, that torment, quite beautifully. Mille grazie per la raccomandazione, Valerio -- caro amico mio.

1 comment:

Valerio said...

Prego, non c'é davvero di che, D!

I'm so glad you read it, at last... and wow, what a masterly review!

You quoted some of my favourite lines from the book... there are at least two other fantabulous ones I can recall now: one is the short paragraph about the prodigal son, the other is the answer one of the guys gives to Blanche's question: "Why are you kissing me?"... and it's "Because you're not uglier than the others."

"Antichrista" reminded me of another book, too!
It was not Atwood's, it was Daphne du Maurier's.
It was "Rebecca", of course!

I know, I know, I know. The parallel I drew was kinda forced but, still, I can't help seeing Manderley on fire while reading Blanche is doing those physical exercises Christa taught her.

Well done, D!
I hope you'll get to read all of Amélie's books, sooner or later.