Tuesday, November 3, 2009

32. “Journal d’Hirondelle” by Amélie Nothomb

Year of first publication: 2006
Genre: novel
Country: the novel is set in France, but the author is from Belgium

In italiano: Diario di Rondine di Amélie Nothom, pubblicato da Voland nella collana Amazzoni (2006), €12,50

As far as I know, this book hasn’t been translated into English. I can’t help saying once again that they should translate more literature into English, at least from European languages.

Plot: A man decides to take up a job as a hit man after a love story gone wrong which left him unable to feel any emotion. He’s the best of killers: cold-blooded and meticulous. One day he’s hired to kill a Minister and his family, but when he enters the house the man’s daughter is about to kill her father because he has read her diary. Moved by the encounter with the girl, who he was obliged to kill nontheless, he decides not to hand in the diary she was keeping.

Some thoughts:
This is a very short novel, only 92 pages. The style is crude, almost grotesque, and the characters are not fully introduced. In fact they hardly have names or a biography. The explanation is probably that the main character is everyman, potentially the reader himself after a failed love story. Amélie Nothomb is usually praised for the psychological depth of her novels: Journal d’Hirondelle (“diary of a swallow”) describes how a person would react if he/she is deprived of all emotions. It is a weird novel, I don’t know if all Nothomb’s novels are like this, but the situation and the plot twist are very unusual. She comes to me as an experimental writer more than a good story teller (most contemporary Anglophone or Italian writers are good story tellers but don’t experiment much with literature in the way that Nothomb does with this book). She reminds me of Frédéric Beigbeder* because of her crude minimalist style, her anecdotes and wittiness, but also because of her permanent resolution to stupefy and challenge the reader.

About the author:
Amélie Nothomb was born in 1967 in Japan into an aristocratic family of Belgian diplomats and politicians. She has also lived in China, New York, Bangladesh, Burma and Laos. The itinerant life of her parents didn’t have a positive influence on her upbringing and she lived the distance from Japan almost as an exile. She didn’t live in Europe until she was 17, when she moved to Brussels. After some family tensions, she returned to Japan to work in a Japanese company. She remained there one year and after this disastrous experience she moved again to Belgium. Her first novel, Hygiène de l'assassin (The Hygiene of the Assassin in English) was published in 1992. Since then, she has published roughly one novel per year. Her most famous works are probably the autobiographical novels Métaphysique des Tubes (2000, strangely translated as The Character of Rain), which details her Japanese childhood, and Stupeur et Tremblements (1999, translated as Fear and Trembling in English), which recounts her experience as a translator in a Japanese company.

* I just read by coincidence that yesterday Frédéric Beigbeder was awarded the Renaudot prize, one of the most important literary prizes in France, for his novel Un Roman Français (2009). Frédéric Beigbeder is a controversial writer in France, a sort of “enfant terrible, especially because of the depiction of drug abuse in his books (he admits that his characters are often autobiographical). In 2008, he was arrested for sniffing cocaine on the hood of a car one. In his new novel he takes his revenge on his prosecutor. However, the four offending pages disappeared from the book between the time some copies were sent to the press and the publication of the novel. Some say this was a marketing ploy, since Beigbeder used to work in advertising.


  1. Thanks Stefania. This is a book I would want to read. I wish I were multilingual since translations spoil the taste. good work

  2. Io di Amélie Nothomb ho letto solo la "Metafisica dei tubi", l'ho trovato arguto e originale, ma un po' troppo costruito, e direi decisamente sopravvalutato.
    O forse non è il mio genere: preferisco i good story tellers!

  3. @Nana: yes, being multilingual helps, especially if you were educated as bilingual from when you were little.

    @Silvia: I also prefer story tellers, but I didn't want to say that Amélie Nothomb is a bad writer only because she experiments with the text. De gustibus...

  4. Stefania...do you read Spanish? someone has responded to my poem 'Horrorscope' in spanish and I would be glad if you translate it for me...thanks

  5. Los tres libros que he leido de Amélie Nothomb , me han gustado mucho:
    Estupor y temblores
    El atentado
    Biografia del hambre
    Los libros de Amélie Nothomb , son geniales , pero muy cortos.