Amélie Nothomb: Psychopompe [ Psychopomp]
When I first saw the title of this book, I was somewhat mystified. However, it turns out there is such a thing as a psychopomp. Apparently it is literally the ‘guide of souls They are creatures, spirits, angels, demons or deities in many religions whose responsibility is to escort newly deceased souls from Earth to the afterlife. All is revealed later in the book though we start out with birds, lot of them and end up with a book that might well have been subtitled How I Became a Writer.
In her earlier books, Nothomb used her experiences abroad as the basis for her her stories. Her father was a Belgian diplomat in various places, particularly though certainly not only in Japan and her stories were set in Japan. and elsewhere. In this book we are back to young Amélie and her family in various places abroad. She starts off in the way she plans to keep on, with a legendary tale of a crane (the bird) whose key theme is the relationship between humans and birds and, particularly how humans exploit birds.
Young Amélie and family are in Japan (where she heard this legend) but, when she was five, her father was posted to Beijing and the family had to move there during the Maoist era. The first thing that she had noticed was the lack of bird sound. Mao determined that the birds were eating the crops and the Chinese were ordered to kill them. Only the crows seemed to be able to evade the bird-killing. She also missed the Japanese language. Chinese was as hard and unpleasant as the croaking of a crow.
Next stop was New York where there were a lot of birds, particularly in the Hudson Valley where they had a cabin and saw whitings, mocking birds, cardinals and buntings.
Her mother did not allow the children to get up before 7 a.m. so she would lie in bed listening and trying to identify the birds she could hear. She would try and guess the colour of their plumage from the sound they made. She continued to enjoy watching and listening to the birds though, at this time, she took up ballet and enjoyed the avian-themed ballets such as Swan Lake. She even managed to meet Suzanne Farrell who gave her a pair of her ballet shoes.
But father was on the move again, this time to Bangladesh, where there were various exotic birds to be seen and where she had something of an epiphany about birds and her relationship to them. She marvels at how the original pterodactyls and other bird precursors learned to fly and, indeed, why they chose to fly. She also decided eggs were her favourite food, a taste that has remained.
When she was given a cage containing four amandava birds, she immediately released them, to her parents’ annoyance. when she was given a canary in a cage, she was firmly instructed not to release it. She tried to befriend it and then, when she met the daughter of the Egyptian ambassador who also had a caged canary, they competed somewhat for whose bird can sing best and whose bird was most affectionate.
But her love affair continues. Until then, I had been passionate about the avian species. From now on, it was more. The bird would be my mystery. There was no explanation. The magic worked immediately. The bird became permanent in me. Everything happened as if I had suddenly acquired lateral vision.
They seemed to spend some time in Bangladesh, which gives her an opportunity to mock the snobbish British but also sees her changing as she starts learning ancient Greek which is where we move on to psychopomp. The pomp part of the word is of course the same as the English word pomp but in French the word is pompe which means both pomp and pump, though the two words have different roots as she points out. She plays around with the word pompe as pompe/pomper have other meanings in French such as getting drunk (pompette means tipsy.
However we move on to psychopomps such as Hermes and Orpheus and from them, of course, to death, a subject which fascinates her, perhaps too much as we will find out. When they move to Burma and then Laos, she becomes more obsessive. You are a failed psychopump. Crossing the river is unthinkable. You are going to die.
All of this is leading to her becoming a writer, which she starts considering when, aged seventeen, she moves back to Brussels. She does not fit in back in Brussels so she moves back to Japan. The planets immediately aligned. I rediscovered this incomparable grace called health.
The birds had rather moved into the background but now they are back as she equates writing with flying. Learning to do either is difficult and often fraught with danger. Flying is not only a form of freedom but, she argues, leads to joy which brings on singing. However, Writing is the highest desire, equal to flying. A bird knows that flying every day is a great achievement but, she claims, it is the same with writing. This is precisely where the problem lies. Ninety-nine percent of beginners refuse the learning phase. Publication is considered the objective. She points out that her first published book (available in English translation) was the eleventh book she wrote. She famously writes several book a year but only one is considered worthy of being published.
And death? My manuscripts, whether published or not, incorporate death more and more. We learn more and more about her writing and the role of her much-beloved father in her writing. I still have to cultivate the bird in me. It’s not yet done.
This is something of an unusual book for Nothomb. She has certainly written several autobiographical novels before, particularly her early ones but his one, dealing with three separate, albeit related topics – birds, death and writing – is something of a change, though certainly an interesting one for the reader.
First published in 2023 by Albin Michel
No English translation