Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Publisher Spotlight: Europa Editions- Review of HYGIENE AND THE ASSASSIN, by Amélie Nothomb

Hygiene and the Assassin, by Amélie Nothomb. Published 2010 by Europa Editions. Literary Fiction. Translated from the French.

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.

Rating: BUY

More in my Publisher Spotlight series on Europa Editions:

Week One:
Week Two:

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Europa Editions.


bermudaonion said...

I think I'm probably one of those this book isn't for.

Zibilee said...

Ok Marie, you have done it again, and made me want to rush out and grab this book. First of all, that cover is slightly disturbing, and coupled with the fact that this book deals with such unsavory characters makes me really curious about all that happens in this story. I do like strange and unusual books, and this one sounds like it fits the bill perfectly. I also like the fact that the characters are so terrible. I get tired of reading about ho-hum characters sometimes, and think this is something that would have real bite. Thanks for the excellent review, and for not sharing spoilers!

(Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea said...

Marie, this is one title I missed along the way. Love those Europas and this one sounds awesome; great review.