by Amélie Nothomb
translated from French by Andrew Wilson
I really love Amélie Nothomb. Which meant she was a no-brainer as my Belgium choice for the EU Reading Challenge. Not that this book is set in Belgium. Like many of her novels, this is a semi-fictionalised account of Nothomb’s childhood moving around the world thanks to her father being a Belgian diplomat.
In this case, Nothomb is recalling the time she spent living in China in 1972–1975. She was just five when they moved from Japan to a tightly controlled compound in Beijing (or Peking, as it was then known). They shared this large residence with many other diplomats’ families, and the perceived safety of having armed guards on the gate meant that all the children were largely left to play in the yard with each other whenever they weren’t eating, sleeping or at school. It could have been idyllic, were it not for children’s tendency to be vicious to one another.
But you would be forgiven if it took you half of this novella to figure out that is what is going on. While she occasionally acknowledges that the compound’s adults were dealing with complex politics at work and between each other, this story is entirely about the children and what Nothomb personally experienced. And she was largely playing pretend.