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Amélie Nothomb: Le sabotage amoureux (Loving Sabotage)

Nothomb’s second novel tells of her time as a child in China, where her father was serving as a diplomat. The Nothomb family arrives from Japan, where her father had been a diplomat and the young Amélie (five years old) is not too happy about it. They have to live in one of the compounds set aside for foreign diplomats (we are in the early 1970s, when the Chinese still very much distrusted foreigners). Indeed, as the young Amélie tells us they had virtually no contact with the Chinese, except for the embassy interpreter and the domestic staff, all of whom seem to be called Chang. What makes this book so fascinating is that the whole book is seen through the eyes of a child, who clearly is no adult in miniature but has a clear view of life, very different from adults.

Though we do get various accounts of what happens inside the compound, there are two key areas of interest for Amélie. The first is the continuation of World War II and the second is her first love. The children have little to do in the compound so they decide to continue World War II. It may be over for the adults but not for the children. There are several compounds. The British, Americans and Russians live in another compound, so they are not involved. However, the remaining nationalities represent the Allies. The remaining nationalities include the francophones – Belgians, French and the former French colonies – and a few other assorted nationalities, including a few East Europeans and the Italians (no-one seems to be aware that they were with the German in World War II). The Germans are represented exclusively by the East Germans. The adults, in one of their rare appearances in this book, decide that the West Germans are on our side now and must be excluded. The children of the Allies refuse to accept them so that they have to remain neutral. The East Germans – all male – are fairly numerous. The War, which is continuous, involves various acts of sabotage – urinating in the yoghourt left on the steps of the residences is a favourite – as well as capturing enemy troops and punishing them. The Germans punish their prisoners by knocking them around. The Allies, after having furious discussions in French about what to with their prisoner, which often has him very worried, usually try humiliation, with immersion in a large container of urine kept especially for this purpose being the one finally selected.

Amélie is the youngest of the Allies, so she is selected as the scout, to determine where the enemy is hiding. She performs this job well but likes to get mixed in and her final triumph is when she urinates – standing up – on the face of the captured German leader. This, of course, brings her great accolades from all of the Allies. However, the one she hopes to most impress is her first love. Soon after the arrival of the Nothombs, an Italian family arrives and Amélie is immediately in love with Elena, the very arrogant daughter of the family. (Elena’s brother is universally despised, particularly by Amélie and even more so when he succumbs to torture and reveals he secret hiding-place of the Allies’ hospital.) To Amélie’s surprise Elena does not reciprocate her love. Amélie is even more shocked when Elena shows interest in a boy, Fabrice. Amélie has already decided that there are three types of people in the world – girls, women and ridiculous people. Girls are, of course, the best, while women serve some purpose, namely bringing up children, cooking, etc. Men and boys – the ridiculous people – serve no useful purpose in Amélie’s world whatsoever. So when Elena is interested in a boy Amélie is astounded. She proceeds to do what any girl would do in her situation – sabotage the relationship, which she does. She briefly wins Elena back, first with her urination on the enemy and then, at the instigation of her mother, by playing hard to get.

Nothomb tells a very funny story from a child’s perspective. Indeed, she comes close (but not too close) to Lord of Flies in her sweet viciousness and her absolute self-centredness. (She states that the universe only exists to serve her.) Her ambition was to become either a Nobel prize-winner in medicine or a martyr or both. Thankfully, she has become neither.

Publishing history

First published in 1993 by Albin Michel
First published in English in 2000 by New Directions
Translated by Andrew Wilson