Thursday, April 29, 2010

Métaphysique des tubes

Every once in a while, I'm in the mood to read something really weird. Not weird in an implausible or completely outlandish way, although I do have those moments, too; rather, weird in the sense that the story takes place in this world, in more or less this time and yet what happens could never really happen (or, if it could, it couldn't happen to me), but doesn't come across as anything by realistic. In literature, sometimes an unusual perspective or style of narrative is weird enough to hook me, without turning me off. Belgian author Amélie Nothomb is a master of this. Métaphysique des tubes is her sort-of memoir about her childhood in Japan, and it is weird.

The story starts with God. It's a condensed retelling of the Bible's version of the beginning of the world and lays out in a very short space a lot of explanation of what's to come (of course, hindsight is 20-20 and when I first read this I had no idea what God was doing at the beginning of such a story). After she introduces the reader to God, though, and reminds them of His power and magnificence, Nothomb introduces us to baby Amélie, who her parents think is brain-damaged. Baby Amélie doesn't cry or fuss, she doesn't move, she just lies there like a small pink-ish cylinder. The doctor proclaims her a vegetable and her parents are devastated. But they soldier on, nicknaming her Plant hiring a nanny to look after her.

Baby Amélie is waited on hand and foot and although she's small, she does grow. But, even though there's really nothing wrong with her mind, she doesn't speak. Baby Amélie has fully developed language skills in her head, but she doesn't bother using them because she doesn't need to. She's like a little god, whose ever wish is fulfilled before she ever need ask for something. Then, one day at the beach, she nearly drowns. And, upon being rescued by a family friend, she thanks him in perfect French - to the shock and awe of her entire family. Of course, this ends the god-like phase of her life. As soon as she demonstrates an above-normal linguistic capacity, she is expected to behave like other toddlers, and in Japan that means no more nanny after age 2.

It's fairly unusual for a book to be narrated by a baby and not have it be a book for children, which Métaphysique des tubes certainly is not. Rather, baby Amélie has a very sophisticated perspective on the world. And, because she is a silent observer for the majority of the narrative, she is exposed to more than most babies would be.

As I said above, this is a weird book, not least because of the point of view of the narrator. But, through its weirdness is a really detailed look at what it means to be alive, and how that definition changes based on where you are (physically, mentally and spiritually). It's billed as an "autobiography from age 0 to 3 years old," but it's much more than a look at what it means to be a baby. Nothomb's other sort-of memoir Stupeur et tremblements (about her return to Japan as young woman) is more widely known and also hilarious. But reading Métaphysique des tubes first explains a lot about the woman she becomes, and her writing style in general.

Métaphysique des tubes is unlike pretty much every other memoir I've ever read. But if you can get past that and lose yourself in the story (which isn't that hard), you get the important reminder that the life of a baby is still a life (and not a mere existence). And, if you're really paying attention, you'll realize that what Nothomb is actually saying is that a baby's ability to continuously learn and adapt and observe is something we should try to hold on to, because in many ways that life is much more sophisticated than the day-to-day life of an adult.

Métaphysique des tubes
By Amélie Nothomb
First published in 2000 (cover image shown from Le Livre de Poche edition)

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