Amelie Nothomb's novel Hygiene and the Assassin consists of a series of interviews with the great, Nobel Prize winning, novelist Pretextat Tech, a fictional reclusive author who has never before spoken to the press. Now, in advanced age, diagnosed with fatal cartalidge cancer and just two months to live, he has agreed to speak with the press.
In each of the novels opening early chapters consists a single journalists interviews the bloated, egotistical author who bullies him so badly he ends up fleeing in terror, convinced that the author is a monster. Later, in the cafe across the street from the author's home the journalist finds himself looking ridiculous in retrospect, once the tape recording of the interview has been played for his colleagues. Time after time, Tach manipulates each journalist into following him down the garden path where he leaves them tied up in verbal knots, unable to proceed with the interview or to understand just how they got into such a mess with him in the first place.
It's a fun read.
Pretextat Tach reminded me of Ignatious Riley from John Kennedy Toole's novel A Confederacy of Dunces. Tech is just as fat, just as full of himself, just as boisterious and mysanthropic and verbose and funny. Tach reviles the world, his reputation, his own work. Each time he unleashes his wit on the next journalist, none of whom have ever read his books since he is an author everyone knows about but no one reads, the resulting tirade is as much fun as the wilder digressions of Lawerence Sterne's Tristram Shandy.
I had a lot of fun. I even read one chapter out loud to C.J. who enjoyed it just as much as I did.
Then Pretextat Tach meets his match in a young woman, probably the only person in the world who has read his work, all 26 novels including the unfinished one, Hygiene and the Assassin. Once she gets a hold of him, the novel turns from comedy to psychological thriller.
Her interview with Tach makes up the final half of the novel. It's just as cutting, just as exciting as the one's that proceeded it, but it's not as much fun.
During her interview we find out things about Tach that pushed him, rather pushed me, outside of what can be comfortably dealt with. While he was a monster in the first chapters, he was a monster many readers could love. He was the monster so many of us want to be now and then, the monster who can speak the truth polite society so often forces us to keep to ourselves. We may not be able to say what we really want to when we want to, but we can enjoy a character like Pretextat Tach who speaks his mind. We're just reading about him, after all. We don't have to deal with him in person.
But in the final inteview, Tach confesses things about himself that wander into territory that may be best left unexplored. He becomes a true monster, one we can't really enjoy anymore.
I admired Ms. Nothomb's novel right up to the end. A character as repulsively misogynistic and abuse as Pretextat Tach reveals himself to be can't help but prove challenging to read about. The novel is always good, but after a certain point I wasn't having fun with it anymore.
I think Ms. Nothomb is an author worth watching, but she is an author one should be wary of as well. Follow her down the garden path at your own risk.