Sunday, November 15, 2015

The Life of Hunger The Life of Hunger by Amélie Nothomb
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"I was too exhausted to do anything. Dragging myself to the bar was a huge effort: only the prospect of whisky made me capable of it. I drank to forget that I was thirteen."

Yet another charmer from Amélie Nothomb. I loved reading this little book after having to endure the vapid vile vomit from Mr. Palahniuk. While The Life of Hunger (2004) is definitely not in the class of Ms. Nothomb's masterpiece Loving Sabotage and does not reach the allure of her The Character of Rain or Hygiene and the Assassin , it is an eminently readable book - sweet, delightful, funny, and often quite deep.

Ms. Nothomb, a daughter of a Belgian diplomat, describes her childhood and youth spent in various countries, where her father was posted in his foreign office jobs. She remembers her first conscious years spent in Japan, her beloved nanny Nishio-san, and writes about her Japanese kindergarten, yȏchien. At the age of five, the family moves to Peking (Beijing), which - in the early Seventies, the time of fierce Maoism - was not a particularly pleasant place to live (Ms. Nothomb fictionalized some of her childhood experiences from that time in the extraordinary Loving Sabotage). She loves her stay in New York, where her father was serving at the United Nations. The family then moves to Bangladesh, a country of poverty and hunger (as she writes, dying was "the chief occupation in Bangladesh"), and Burma and Laos come next. Finally, at seventeen she begins her studies at the Free University in Brussels.

Ms. Nothomb frames her charming memoir as the story of hunger: not just hunger for food (although the descriptions of her appetite for sweets - and alcohol - are hilarious), but the "generalized hunger", the "[...] terrible lack within the whole being, the gnawing void, the aspiration not so much to a utopian plenitude as to simple reality [...]", which in her case took the form of hunger for love and for books. To me, the hunger metaphor does not quite work, but this delightful childhood memoir - not altogether devoid of serious notes - is rewarding even without it. And the beginning passages about Vanuatu (formerly New Hebrides), an Oceanian archipelago, the land of permanent plenitude, the land that has never known hunger, provide a rewarding bonus.

Three and a half stars.

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