Hygiene and the Assassin is a virtually plot-less novel which author Amélie Nothomb constructs from a series of interviews pitting five French journalists against one of the most odious and unlikable characters I have ever encountered, one Prétextat Tach, a renowned author now approaching his death. Manipulative, cruel and vile, Tach, a recluse, is dying slowly of a rare degenerative illness and the literati are clamoring for his attention.
The book is divided into five chapters, one for each interviewer; one by one, the first four stroll in thinking those that came before are responsible for their utter humiliation at the hands of this truly awful man. But then a young woman named Nina turns everything on its head. Unlike the others, it seems, Nina has done her research on the imposing master; she knows him, and his work, and when she takes him on she's armed to the teeth. I don't want to spoil anything so I have to be somewhat oblique in the details I reveal, but she takes their conversation into regions neither he nor the reader expects, and where it all ends up is somewhere else entirely.
Her interrogation of Tach is merciless; he's a monster but she almost makes me feel sorry for him. Almost. Nina is like a priest/confessor, but one who knows everything and refuses absolution. In the end the reader has to ask, what am I willing to forgive? Does Tach- or Nina- deserve forgiveness? In the Catholic tradition of confession, forgiveness and absolution are predicated on remorse; if neither shows remorse, is either deserving of forgiveness? And just who is the more moral of the two, or are we dealing with evil on both sides?
This book is another one that's not going to be for everyone. Europa, as editor in chief Michael Reynolds said in his interview with me published here last week, likes to publish edgy and challenging books, books that you're not going to come across from virtually any other publisher; Hygiene and the Assassin is such a book. It's either going to be unreadable or un-put-downable; for me it was the latter but I expect it to be the former for all but the most intrepid of readers. It's a really tough book. Tach is truly one of the most horrible people I've ever met on the page and Nina brings her own measure of brutality. By the end it's honestly hard to say who's worse. But the novel is a gem. Nothomb creates a momentum and a chemistry between Nina and Tach and it's impossible to look away. I had to know what was going to happen, finally. It's amazing; it's a dizzying, dazzling spectacle, and amazing.
More in my Publisher Spotlight series on Europa Editions:
- Tuesday: Interview with editor-in-chief Michael Reynolds,
- Wednesday: Review of Heliopolis, by James Scudamore, nominated for the Man Booker Prize,
- Thursday: Interview with James Scudamore.
- Monday: Review of The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine, by Alina Bronsky, due out next month,
- Tuesday: Interview with Alina Bronsky,
- Wednesday: Review of Hygiene and the Assassin, by Amélie Nothomb,
- Thursday: Review of The Jerusalem File, by Joel Stone
FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Europa Editions.