Are you ready for this? Prétextat Tach, 83-year-old Nobel Prize winner for literature, possibly the world’s largest writer (so obese that he has four chins), author of 22 novels, such a recluse that he hasn’t left his apartment in years, learns that his death is imminent, so besides gorging himself on fatty foods and smoking twenty cigars every day, he decides after years of isolation that he will give a number of interviews—presumably to solidify his place in literary history. “His secretary set about making a drastic selection from among the various proposals: he eliminated all the solicitations from the foreign press, because the dying man spoke only French, and did not trust interpreters; he turned down all reporters of color, because with age the writer had begun to express racist views….”
“It was not without a certain sense of pride that Monsieur Tach [had] learned [that] he was afflicted with the dread Elzenveiverplatz Syndrome, more commonly refereed to as ‘cartilage cancer,’ which the eponymous learned physician had individuated in Cayenne in the nineteenth century among a dozen or so convicts imprisoned for sexual crimes followed by homicide, and which had never been diagnosed since that time. Monsieur Tach viewed his diagnosis as a hitherto unhoped-for ennoblement: with his hairless, obese physique—that of a eunuch in every respect except for his voice—he dreaded dying of some stupid cardiovascular disease…. [For] years he had admitted to not being able to walk; he blatantly ignored any recommendations from nutritionists and had terrible eating habits.”
These are facts about Prétextat Tach that the reader learns during the first two pages of Amélie Nothomb’s unforgettable novel, Hygiene and the Assassin, a rollicking, gut-splitting romp that takes the role of the writer/artist and turns it on its head with such dazzling bravado that one can only say hats off to the writer who was only twenty-five when she wrote this sparkling literary satire.
When the first journalist interviews Tach and asks the question, “Isn’t writing a life?” the banality of Tach’s answer–“I’m not in a good position to answer that question. I’ve never done anything else”–leaves the interviewer so flummoxed that he flees the old man’s darkened sarcophagus. Like the next three, the first interviewer reveals that he has not read any of Tach’s novels. He’s there simply to get a good story, possibly a sensational one, since the obese writer’s novels include tantalizing titles: Crucifixion Made Easy, An Apology for Dyspepsia, Gratuitous Rape between Two Wars, Filthy People, Death on Credit, and Dying without Adverbs—a morbid fascination with filth and mortality.
The second journalist retches when Tach reveals the fatty food he eats: “solidified fat, raw bacon, the oil from a can of sardines,” after throwing out the sardines themselves. Also pigs’ trotters, chicken rumps, marrowbones, with a “ladleful of lard,” and so on. Tach—whose room is so dark that no journalist can clearly see him and equally foul of smell—tells the third journalist that he is “the Messiah of obesity.” This gross observation is exceeded only by Tach’s revelations to the fourth interviewer. He hates mankind but especially women. “Women are inferior to men, that goes without saying: all you have to do is see how ugly they are. In the past, there was no bad faith. No one tried to hide women’s inferiority, and they were treated in consequence. But what we have nowadays is revolting: women are still inferior to men—for they are still just as ugly—but they are being told that they are man’s equal. And because they are stupid, naturally they believe it.”
Without a doubt, Prétextat Tach is one of the most outrageous characters ever to appear in literature, and Hygiene and the Assassin is much more than a satire of all the great writers of the past who have outlived their critical acclaim and their following. He’s a pompous, ugly, windbag, who ought to be ignored and left to die from the cancer that is rapidly destroying him. But—also like literary grandees who cannot face their obscurity—Tach can’t resist making one final attempt to control his image, to restore his place in the literary world.
Thus he makes a fatal mistake. After shocking the first four journalists with his appearance and his outrageous remarks—certain to destroy his stature in the marketplace
–he receives a fifth only to discover to his horror that this time it’s a woman. If the encounters with the earlier interviewers were crude, Tach’s meeting with thirty-year-old Nina is pure tour-de-force, as Nothomb blurs the identity of the two characters, merges and reverses their roles into a breathless and shocking conclusion. Nina his read all twenty-two of Tach’s novels, psychoanalyzed the writer through his books and will soon hoist the old writer on his own petard.
To reveal anything else about this amazing novel would be a disservice to the reader and, above all, to Amélie Nothomb. Credit must also be given Alison Anderson’s splendid translation. Like Prétextat Tach and Nina, Nothomb and Anderson were fated to meet one another.
Hygiene and the Assassin
By Amélie Nothomb
Translated by Alison Anderson
Europa Editions, 167 pp., $15.
Charles R. Larson is Professor of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C.