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Amélie Nothomb: Premier sang (First Blood)

We first meet our hero when he is twenty-eight and facing a firing squad, about to be shot. The reason for his untimely demise is not clear but it seems he and others have been taken hostage. He has tried to negotiate their release but obviously has failed to do so. Indeed, we only know he is male because of the adjectives used in French. I sometimes wonder how translators from inflected languages get around this problem.

No matter, as, inevitably, we now jump back to his early life. We learn that his name is Patrick. His father, André, was a twenty-five year old soldier who was learning how to clear mines. Unfortunately, a real mine was used instead of a fake one and Claude, his wife, was left a widow.She is devastated and wants little to do with her son, who is initially brought up by his maternal grandmother.

Claude does not contemplate remarriage – André was the love of her life – but does however, spend a lot of time on social events. The family is clearly rich so she can enjoy herself, while still mourning her late husband.

Patrick, however, adores his mother and misses her regular affection. When the grandmother proposes a birthday present for Patrick, she suggests a portrait of mother and son, with mother holding Patrick in her arms, all he hears is the holding in her arms bit and eagerly welcomes it. Claude does not like the portrait, though she looks ravishing, as it makes Patrick look much older than he really is.

Grandfather, however, feels that Patrick is becoming too soft so he is sent off to school. It takes them some time to realise that the rest of the class are girls. There is only one solution. Send him to the Nothombs.

Our author comes from a Belgian aristocratic family and this family is also aristocratic, living in a castle. When Patrick arrives – fearful of what awaits him – he is welcomed by his grandfather (as his first grandchild and therefore future inheritor of the castle) and also by his grandfather’s second wife – Patrick’s paternal grandmother had died many years ago. He is taken to his sleeping quarters which turns out to be a large dormitory in a state of total chaos. It turns out that grandfather Nothomb had not lost his sexual potency and has produced numerous children. They welcome him by stealing all the provisions that his grandmother had given him and mocking his clothes. At mealtime he learns that the food is passed to the oldest first so by the time it gets to the youngest cousin Charles and Patrick – there is little, if any, left.

We have by now realised that this is the story of Nothomb’s father, Patrick. While a few odd details do not fit in with the real Patrick Nothomb, most of them clearly do. However, Nothomb (our author) has clearly embellished some of them, not least because it seems unlikely she would be aware of all the various conversations and thoughts of her father, such as details of his sex life.) Moreover, it is surely not coincidental that she should write this book a year after the death of her father.

We have already met her father in her work, specifically in Biographie de la faim (The Life of Hunger). (Interestingly her mother is rarely mentioned and does not get mentioned at all in the standard Wikipedia and other online bios.) Patrick does marry (a woman) in this book and while Nothomb’s two siblings are mentioned, the book ends before her birth.

The episode about being a hostage occurring at the beginning of the book is historical – Patrick Nothomb and many Belgians were taken hostage by rebels in the former Belgian Congo.

Authors writing biographical novels risk the wrath of the family (ask Karl Ove Knausgård) so I wonder what her surviving family members, including her brother and sister, her mother if she is still alive, and various cousins,uncles and aunts, thought. She is not certainly not critical of her father in any way but nor is she averse to pointing out his weaknesses – his softness, his mild Oedipal complex, his naïvety about the opposite sex, for example. Above all, for us as readers who do not know Nothomb, it does rather show that she came from a decidedly quirky family

Publishing history

First published in 2021 by Albin Michel
First English translation in 2023 from Europa
Translated by Alison Anderson