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Amélie Nothomb: Biographie de la faim (The Life of Hunger)

Though we do very soon get to Japan, Nothomb starts this novel with something of a different approach from many of her novels. Specifically, she discusses Vanuatu, a country where people don’t seem to want to eat. She tells the story of three Vanuatans who are invited to a dinner but do not seem to eat. When asked why, they say it is because they are not hungry. Nothomb works out that in their country, there is food in abundance – fruit from the trees, plentiful fish, birds and birds’ eggs easy to find – so they have never felt the want that most other nations have at some them in their past. Even though we now may have enough food, we probably all have an atavistic memory of the past when food was short, so when it is there, we eat it. While she will go on to mention hunger in the conventional sense, particularly when she is in Bangladesh, she will also use it as a term to mean desire for anything we do not have, though her use of it is somewhat scattered.

Many of her other books are about her time in Japan but in this one, apart from the odd digression on hunger and Vanuatu, she tells of her life as a child, including but certainly not limited to Japan. Her father was a Belgian diplomat and the family had to travel round According to her other books, she spent the first five years of her life in Japan though this seems to be untrue and that she only went to Japan when she ws five. We do get the food issue here. Nothomb’s father seem to be fairly greedy and his daughter follows in his footsteps – we get a story of her stealing a box of Speculoos, the only one the family has, and then not only eating the whole box, but watching herself in the mirror enjoying eating them. However, much of thus part is about how a young Belgian girl adapts (or, rather, does not adapt) to being Japanese. Unlike her siblings, she is sent to a Japanese school, where she is the only non-Japanese, so much so that, on one occasion, the other pupils strip her naked to see if she is really white all over. This does not bother her as much as it bothers the teacher and her parents. However, she does, on the whole, not like this school and soon finds out that she can ask to go to the toilet and then climb out of the toilet window and go home. She gets away with this for a while. Despite her dislike of school, she very much enjoys her time in Japan (up to the age of five), primarily because she is very fond of her nanny.

However, her father is soon transferred and this time they go off to Beijing, at the height of the Cultural Revolution. Neither father nor daughter are happy here. Amélie’s hunger, as she calls it, is for other places and she spends much of her time perusing the atlas. However, she is also well aware of the hunger in the countryside of China. From Beijing, which they are glad to leave, it is off to New York, where the freedom they had compared to Beijing overwhelms them. In particular, at the French girls’ school in New York, Amélie finds ten of the other girls fall in love with her, while she only loves two and it is only those two whose hands she wishes to hold when they go out at lunchtime. This causes problems. She also falls in love with Inge, the au pair, who, in her turn, falls in love with a neighbour in their apartment building. This does not work out too well.

After New York, it is Bangladesh, where Amélie and her sister, Juliette, pass their time reading, horrified by the hunger and misery of Dhaka. After Burma and Laos, she is off to Belgium to study, finding Belgium something of a foreign country and thence to Japan, where she meets a young man and her old nanny. More details on these events can all be found in her previous and later books. If you like Nothomb’s quirky style, her view of exotic cultures as seen through the eyes of a Belgian girl/woman and her amusing anecdotes, you will enjoy this. It is very much like her other works and covers much of the same ground but still makes for enjoyable reading.

Publishing history

First published in 2004 by Albin Michel
First published in English in 2006 by Faber and Faber
Translated by Shaun Whiteside