Bizarre like wasabi chocolate

The Character of Rain
by Amélie Nothomb
translated by Timothy Bent

I discovered Amélie Nothomb five or six years ago and I love her quirky style. Her books are novels and yet in most of them she casts herself as the main character and uses her own life for the bare bones of the story. She has a surreal sense of humour and, assuming any of it’s true, an interesting life to draw upon.

This book covers Nothomb’s first three years, which were spent in Japan where her father was the Belgian consul. The very fact that her main character is so young and yet narrates in the first person suggests that the story must be mostly fiction, and that’s before taking the heavy Kafka references into account.

The early part of the book covers the first two years in immensely strange fashion and could not possibly be considered to be a serious straight of-this-world story, but rather an odd analogy for the development of the ego – as I said, Kafkaesque. This is also borne out in the French title of the book: Métaphysiques des tubes – the Tube being her metaphor for a baby (things go in one end and come out the other, with not a lot else going on). I’m not sure if us Brits are considered less au fait with philosophy and the nature of things or if the UK publisher just found that title too plain weird.

The bulk of the book deals with the third year in the child’s life, giving the book an ending point that has particular significance in Japan. Traditionally the Japanese believe that children are gods until the age of three, at which point they fall from grace and join the rest of mankind. Nothomb briefly recounts this belief partway through the novel but it is clearly the basis for the entire story.

The child is introduced to us as God. As it becomes self-aware, it narrates as though the world revolves around it – “naming” people and objects, for example, through its first words. If these were truly the thoughts and actions of a two-year-old child it would be an extremely precocious toddler, and maybe Nothomb was, but more likely the far-too-adult speech is used to convey the point – the child gradually becoming aware of more of the world and, even at this early age, losing some of its security. There is also a lot of secrecy, of “me versus the world” which, as far as I remember, is a pretty accurate way of describing childhood.

There is an extent to which this book is also about Nothomb’s love for Japan. Her family left Japan when she was five and she returned there for a few years as an adult. The land of her birth clearly holds a special place in her heart and this is eloquently conveyed in the intense, passionate voice of the child.

The English title, by the way, has a neat little etymology of its own. “Rain” is one of the meanings of the kanji character for the child’s name (it would be interesting to know if the word actually is said “amelie” – anyone know?) so the title could just mean that this is about the development of a character called Rain. However, the child is also a water-lover and holds a particular fondness for heavy summer rain, imbuing it with various significances.

For a short book, this isn’t a light read but it is enjoyable and stays just this side of too plain weird for my taste.

First published in France in 2000 by Editions Albin Michel.
First published in Great Britain in 2004 by Faber and Faber.

One thought on “Bizarre like wasabi chocolate

  1. Leeswammes (Judith) September 2, 2010 at 7:31 am

    Interesting and intriguing. It sounds like a book I may or may not enjoy. I’ve only read Nothomb’s Sulphuric Acid, which I liked a lot. I should and will try one of her other books!

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