Sunday, November 25, 2007

An Acidic Read

Sulphuric Acid / Amélie Nothomb
London : Faber & Faber, c2007.

Another novella (her 20th) from Belgian author Amélie Nothomb, this could only have been written by a European. Wondering just how far reality shows will go seems to have engaged the imagination of many authors lately. I recently read a YA novel, Surviving Antarctica, using this theme. This novella is far darker, which is to be expected from this author.

The setting is France. The state of television is such that a new reality show called "Concentration" is all the rage. The show is as horrible as you might imagine from its name -- people are randomly pulled from the streets and sent to the concentration camp of the title. Every move is televised, and the thugs hired as kapos decide who will be sent to their deaths. Into this disturbing situation comes a beautiful young woman, Pannonique. Her beauty and nobility transfix viewers, and the producers allow viewers to begin voting on who is next up for death. It's the introverts, the old, the ungainly -- all those 'unmarketable' -- who go first. It's a chilling premise, both for the idea that the world could become so evilly callous, and for the shadows of Nazi camps which are evoked. I recognize her intent to point out the absurd fixation on celebrity at all costs, but I am nonetheless uncomfortable with the use of a concentration camp as the central image.

Eventually the whole show is brought to a halt by the selfish actions of one of the guards, who acts for Pannonique's sake. She is heroic by everyone's standards, for breaking apart the acceptance of the show's very existence, but she knows she has done it all for herself, not out of any sympathy or concern for the greater good.

I'm not certain where I stand on this novel. It is fully as dark and discomfiting as I'd expected, but I'm not wholly convinced that everything was necessary to the story. For one thing, prisoners are snatched off the streets, they do not volunteer -- thus the theme of "celebrity at all costs" is compromised. The victims here are not all willing. And I just could not get past the discomfort I felt with the concentration camp being used here. If feels somehow disrespectful, even though I understand her sharp-eyed purpose. (and such discomfort may be part of her intent as well.) So I can't wholeheartedly recommend this one. Unless you already have an interest in Nothomb, or want to read another reality show critique, I'd say pass by.


  1. I tried a few of Nothomb's novel -- but I can't say I "get" her yet. I can't figure out the appeal in her that made her such a big literary star, and I wondered if it was because I don't read French.

    Have you tried any of her other books?

  2. Dark Orpheus - I don't really 'get' her either. I've read "The Book of Proper Names" as well, and it has the same dark vision. I can't quite figure out the star appeal, but she is certainly feted. Perhaps you're right and it's something to do with the language and the cultural milieu she writes within.

  3. Ick...when you first mentioned Concentration, I thought it was going to be a TV version of the card game! So for a couple seconds, I was thinking, "What's so horrible about that?" Too bad the actual premise was pretty sick. :(


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