Last week I wrote about Revenge, the first book I read by Yoko Ogawa, a name I’d heard many times over the past few years and had always felt I should read. This week I’m writing about Amélie Nothomb’s latest in English, Life Form (Une forme de vie, 2010; tr. from the French by Alison Anderson, 2013). It’s my first time reading Nothomb, a name I’ve heard even more and for an even longer time than Ogawa and whose books I’ve picked up time and time again to read only to put them down again thinking, I’ll get to her soon. I knew she was an author I didn’t want to miss. Perhaps another reason I’ve hesitated to jump into her work is because of how prolific she is. Since the early 1990s, she’s been publishing one book every year, and we actually have many of them in English. Where to start?
Since I have read only Life Form, I cannot answer that question definitively, but I can say that this short, fun book is a joy. If you also start here, I think you’ll want to read more. I do. That said, from what I know of her other work, Life Form seems to be one of her lighter pieces, a sort of comedic, headlong romp that reminded me at times of Philip Roth’s The Prague Orgy (my review here).
The book begins with a letter Nothomb received from a Melvin Mapple, who claims to be a private in the US Army stationed in Baghdad. It’s a “new sort of letter,” she says. In it, Melvin writes:
I’m writing to you because I am as down as a dog. I need some understanding and I know that if anyone can understand me, you can.
Nothomb, both in this book and in real life, corresponds via traditional letters to various people across the globe. She assumes this private simply knew this and decided to write to her, though she cannot understand why he chose her as a “wartime pen pal”: “Assuming he had read my books, were they any sort of solid proof of human compassion and understanding?”
In some ways, that’s what this book is about: relationships through writing, the illusion of proximity, of intimacy, and the great potential for error. Can she honestly hope to help this man as he suffers in a war? And has he actually read anything she’s written? It turns out that yes, he has. He’s read everything she’s written.
Touched and a bit thrilled at the attention, she asks Melvin about himself, offering hope that he’d soon be home again since the day she wrote the letter was the same day of Obama’s inauguration. She asks Melvin to tell her a little about himself. This is where their relationship gets strange and the book, for me, got feverishly paced.
He tells her he’s obese. Eating is the main pastime where he’s stationed. Oh, tell us more, Melvin. He has enough weight on him to be two people. In fact, he calls his other half Scheherazade. He feels it is a punishment for killing an Iraqi woman:
No way I can go on a diet. I don’t want to lose Scheherazade. If I lost weight it would be like killing her all over again. If my punishment for this war crime is to carry my victim with me as a mound of flesh, then so be it.
Astonished and disgusted, Nothomb suggests he keep gaining weight. Make of his obesity a piece of art, take pictures every day as he gets larger — she will help him find the perfect venue to display his body art. Melvin find his purpose:
My obesity is anything but gratuitous, because it has carved my commitment into my body: to make the entire world see the unprecedented horror of this war. Obesity has become eloquent: my own expanse reflects the scale of human destruction on either side.
It’s passages like that (and where Nothomb describes with gusto the physical appearance of Melvin) that reminded me so much of Roth. Passages like that and sentences like this: “Human fat will be for George W. Bush what napalm was for Johnson.” There’s also the fact that this story is presented as something that actually happened to Nothomb. For example, she refers to real newspaper articles that the real Nothomb wrote during this time period. For all we know, this may very well match up some real experience in Nothomb’s own life. That verisimilitude is part of the fun.
Now, it’s safe to say that, as both Melvin and Nothomb write back and forth, drawing each other out, feeling closer and closer, things with Melvin are not as they seem. Life Form is clever, fun, and full of energy.