Amélie Nothomb: "I have never spoken as much with my father as after his death"

Amélie Nothomb (Kobe, 1967) publishes First Blood (Anagram, in Spanish and Catalan), a book about her father, who recently died.

Thomas Osborne
Thomas Osborne
02 February 2023 Thursday 02:56
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Amélie Nothomb: "I have never spoken as much with my father as after his death"

Amélie Nothomb (Kobe, 1967) publishes First Blood (Anagram, in Spanish and Catalan), a book about her father, who recently died. Yesterday he presented her novel at the French Institute in Barcelona. A few hours before, she spoke with this newspaper.

Let's start with the title. What does it mean?

In French there is an expression, we say "the duel will stop at first blood" to indicate that it will not come until the death of one of the contenders. Although this is not known, it is understood that it alludes to very close blood ties.

His father died on the first day of confinement. What triggered the need to write the book? Is it a mourning play? Out of despair? Panic?

Mourning. I never imagined that I would write about my father, he never crossed my mind. I didn't think he could die either. He did not die of coronavirus but of cancer, but it was a great shock for me because, due to the confinement, I could not attend his funeral. I couldn't say goodbye, it was an impossible duel. Six months after his death, I found myself in the position of continuing to converse with him inside my head. It is he who began to speak to me, once dead. He wouldn't stop asking me things, and I would answer him. We had never talked so much, I had the greatest dialogue of our lives with him. Death was the beginning of an extraordinary conversation. ghosts? No, no, it was my father as he was speaking to me. I feel that he is happy. Sometimes he still talks to me, but more sporadically: if I ask for six oysters in a restaurant he tells me: “Come on, order a dozen!”, but I don't listen to him.

In his other books, the father becomes an absence.

It's true. It is as if he had waited until he was dead to speak to me. I have been very happy. I began to wonder if it was normal for him to talk to me every day. Would she ever stop? Did you expect something from me? Finally, I decided to write about him. But how to do it and what to say? I didn't want to tell everything, just see him before I existed.

His father, Patrick Nothomb, was a diplomat, consul in the Congo, and was kidnapped in 1964, in a famous hostage-taking, in which he played a key role as a negotiator.

It was in Stanleyville, the current Kisangani, it was the biggest hostage taking of the 20th century. Two thousand Belgians were taken prisoner. Every morning the rebels brandished their kalashnikovs and shouted that they would kill them all. My father insisted on speaking to them, daily, for four months, resorting to the very African ritual of what they call palabre, and thus he saved 90% of those human lives. It was the Scheherazade of a heroic episode. He managed to flee from death in an extreme way. Hence the focus of the book on this episode.

He wrote In Stanleyville, a book about it, but very little literary...

Yes, in it he tells all the political details but none of his emotions. That was my father. Do you want to believe that he narrates the scene of the firing squad, twelve men with their rifles pointed at him, he was going to die at that moment, something intense he must have felt... but he describes it and something else butterfly? It contained a lot.

That containment is a Nothomb tradition...

It was an aristocratic family, from another era, they never talked about feelings, particularly the negative ones, that was rude, extremely rude. You can suffer but not talk about it. My great-grandfather lost two children to starvation, and no one ever raised the issue.

That spectrum of almost genetic silence is a constant in several of his books. That helplessness of not being able to access the emotions of those you love...

Especially negative emotions. That appears in the practice of my writing: I don't show negative emotions either, I censor pain, contrary to what is done today in French literature, which loves the more suffering and the more victims there are, don't talk to me of victims.

He tiptoes, in effect, for certain things and he has been criticized for it.

That is my balance, the only possible way to approach things. To talk about something truly tragic, I do so without giving the details. Each one suffers in their own way, I respect those who do so by writing 140 painful pages about it.

It is interesting that, in addition, you tell the beginning of your own existence.

I knew the story but I didn't understand until I wrote it that I owe my life to those wild deeds. My father decided to have a third child (me) because he was about to die before that firing squad. When one escapes from that, the vital rush is enormous, the impulse that this extra life causes led him to have me. I was born from that possibility of death. For him it was an extraordinary adventure.

You treat the heroic dimension of your father, also on tiptoe.

I am the daughter of that, my father saved the lives of hundreds of Belgians simply by speaking, and I am invested with that power of the word. This is a key book, I have realized, once written, what language means to me.

It seems that he did not need to use humor and irony so much.

Some scenes are funny to us but they were literally like that. That family whose children were not fed, because at that time they did not think of feeding the minors but the elderly, just the opposite of what we do today. The kids look Dickensian but it was in the 1940s. That was aristocratic life in Belgium, in the country, a huge throwback in time.

His father suffered the absence of love from his mother, something very present in his books.

In my case, my parents were very much in love and loved us very much. My grandmother loved him too, but she was widowed when my father was born and, somehow, grief killed her, she didn't have a shred of love left to give her son, she was devastated, cold. I think I've inherited something from that.

Did you want to run away from a documentary? It doesn't stop at the political context...

Nerd. My family is known in Belgium. There have been important politicians in it, that has already been told by my father and other members of the family. I'm not interested in anything from the Nothomb saga, I'm interested in my father: that silent man, in a strange way, with a double life, a mundane diplomat, who received a thousand people at home every month. A great gentleman who spoke magnificently and who, when the guests left, fell into silence.

He even received Mao Zedong.

He warned us that he was a monster but, when he arrived, he was very kind to him, solicitous. At 6 years old I had a hard time understanding him: why does he talk to the horrible dictator as if he was so happy to see him?

It is the secret of diplomacy. The book talks about the importance of language in his life.

Language can kill you but it can also save you. The word is a tool that saves lives, in extreme circumstances and in other more daily ones. We have all lived the extraordinary opportunity to see how our life is restored because of a word, which does us justice and brings us back to life.

What would his father have thought of this book?

I loved when I made him appear in one of my novels, like in Metaphysics of tubes. Once First Blood was published, they showed me an old television recording in which he stated: "I love what my daughter does, my dream is that she writes a book about me." Mission accomplished.

Catalan version, here