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Amélie Nothomb: Métaphysique des tubes (The Character of Rain)

Nothomb’s father was a Belgian diplomat, posted to Japan when his daughter was born. She spent the first five years of her life there and learned Japanese. This is a clever autobiographical novel of her early years. For the first part of her life, everything functions normally except that she does not move, limiting herself to taking in and getting rid of matter. Her parents call her plant; she calls herself tube, hence the French title. Her parents may think that she is almost inert but her brain is functioning very well. She learns French and Japanese (from the Japanese maid). For the Japanese a baby up to the age of three is considered a god and the tube accepts this as her right.

Nothomb goes on to give us a very amusing account of this divine but inert baby, who surprises her parents by suddenly deciding to move or to speak and proving herself very adept at both. But much of the book is a very clever child’s view of the adult world, seen, of course, through her Belgian/Japanese eyes. The scenes, for example, where she determines that diplomat is something to do with drains, as her father falls in one or that expressing an interest in something could lead to getting totally the wrong birthday present (in her case, carp), are not only well told but taken to almost extreme limits. Twice she almost dies because, apparently, the Japanese think it bad manners to rescue someone drowning and her struggles with understanding Japanese culture also add to the charm of this novel. In short, a witty and clever novel which gives an interesting perspective on the world.

Publishing history

First published in 2000 by Albin Michel
First published in English in 2002 by St. Martin’s Press
Translated by Timothy Bent