Fiction/memoir – hardcover; Faber and Faber; 160 pages; 2006. Translated from the French by Shaun Whiteside.
When I read Amélie Nothomb’s astonishingly profound Sulphuric Acid last September I was intrigued enough to seek out more work by this Belgian author. I managed to track down a slightly battered second-hand copy of The Life of Hunger and mistakenly thought it would be a straightforward account of the author’s battle with anorexia (well, with a title like that you would, wouldn’t you?). Instead it’s a kind of weird hybrid between memoir and fiction (or, as the Faber & Faber website describes it, an “odd memoir-cum-novel”) in which Nothomb tells her life story from the age of four to 21.
This isn’t as boring as one might expect, because Nothomb lead a fascinating childhood. Her father was a Belgian diplomat, so she got to live in various exotic places around the world. Indeed, she was born in Kobe, Japan, and then went on to live in China, New York, Bangladesh and Laos.
But the one constant in her life — aside from her elder sister to whom she feels especially close — is her hunger which is at odds with her personal affluence:
As far back as my memories go, I have always been dying of hunger. […] I might add that my hunger should be understood in the broadest sense of the word: had it only been hunger for food, it might not have been so serious. But is it possible only to be hungry for food? Is there a hunger of the belly that is not also a sign of a generalised hunger? By hunger, I mean that terrible lack within the whole being, the gnawing void, the aspiration not so much to a utopian plentitude as to simple reality: where there is nothing, I beg for there to be something.
Reading between the lines I suspect that Nothomb’s fierce intelligence lead her to feel, think and experience things more deeply that other people. Indeed, by the time she’s a teenager her hunger manifests itself in anorexia, which she welcomes because it “kept me in an ice age in which feelings ceased to grow.” She adds: “It was a respite: I stopped hating myself.”
(In quite a revealing article in The Independent, published in 2006, she’s quoted as saying “I’m totally cured. I eat in a strange way, but I enjoy it. Everything became well when I finally understood that I enjoy being hungry. Normally, I only eat in the evening. It’s wonderful. It’s like an orgy!”)
Unfortunately, any deeper exploration of the disease is absent, as Nothomb skips over her two-and-a-half year battle in just a handful of pages. In fact, much of the book is like this. An incident in the sea when she lived in Bangladesh seems so fleeting, so superficial, I’m not sure what to make of it: was she molested by four men, or was she not?
This floating, dream-like quality to the writing is a double-edged sword: beautiful to read but too vague to interpret factually.
There’s also a slightly precocious tone to the writing, and I can imagine that probably reflects what Nothomb was like as a child. (There are, in fact, several references to her early intelligence in the book. But the one that stands out most is a teacher at the French Lycee in New York calling Nothomb’s mother to say “Your daughter’s brain is overdeveloped. Do you think she suffers?”)
On the whole, this is a quirky, somewhat off-beat memoir, one that might mean more to those who have read all of Amélie Nothomb’s back catalogue, rather than the single volume I have managed to enjoy. I guess that means I just need to read more of her work… and with at least 10 translated into English I won’t be short of choices.