Translated by Alison Anderson
Squeezing in a last review for #WITMonth. I was to have reviewed this novella for Shiny, but a longer form review escaped me.
Belgian author Amélie Nothomb is always an exciting author, (see my reviews of The Book of Proper Names, Fear & Trembling, and Strike Your Heart). However, First Blood is very different to her usual contemporary oeuvre led by spiky and flawed female protagonists. Firstly, it is set earlier in the mid-twentieth century, but the leading character of this story is not only male, his life story is a fictionalised version of some of that of her own father who died during the first days of the pandemic. A touching tribute indeed.
It begins in the Republic of the Congo in 1964 with a firing squad. A young man, taken hostage with hundreds of others, faces his last moments and reflects on his life. Patrick Nothomb never knew his father, being only eight months old when he died in an accident with a live landmine. He grew up with his mother, Claude, and his grandmother, who took on most of the child-rearing duties, leaving his mother to live her own life, not taking part in much of Patrick’s, although he always tries to engage his mother. A memorable summer was spent at his other grandfather’s chateau, where he learned he would inherit it and the title of Baron one day. The baron’s other grandchildren there are feral, and thin, he’s fallen on hard times, yet Patrick enjoys his visits.
He studies law and joins the foreign ministry, marries Danièle and they have a child, André. He is sent to the Congolese capital, Kinshasa, then promoted to consul at Stanleyville. It is there that rebels took hundreds and hundreds of expatriates hostage, demanding that the creation of the People’s Repubic of Congo with Stanleyville (now renamed Kisangani) as its capital. Patrick is one of the hostages, and as a Belgian government representative, is able to negotiate with his captors to free many hostages, but not all. As to what finally happens, I couldn’t possibly say.
The largest part of the novella is taken up with Patrick’s childhood and school years, and Nothomb tells the story of a bookish, generous boy, who tries to do his best for everyone, who later applies those sensibilities to his working life as a diplomat too. There is a wryness to her writing here, captured brilliantly by Anderson, (who also translated Strike Your Heart). It’s fair to suggest that Nothomb is queen of the novella – she manages to incorporate so much into so little, but her writing never feels squashed into the form.
While others of her novellas do draw on her own experiences, notably working in Japan in Fear and Trembling, First Blood is her most personal work yet and I am not surprised that it has already won literary prizes in Europe. As for the firing squad – there is no reason to believe it didn’t actually happen – a chilling reality. Highly recommended indeed. (By the way, Nothomb is now a Baroness since the death of her father.)
Source: Review copy – thank you! Europa editions, flapped paperback, 107 pages.
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