the complete review Quarterly
Volume II, Issue 2   --   May, 2001

Love in the Middle Kingdom
Amélie Nothomb's Loving Sabotage



Loving Sabotage (Le sabotage amoureux)
by Amélie Nothomb
translated by Andrew Wilson
136 pp
New Directions
Cloth ISBN: 0-8112-1459-1

       Much of China's mystique and Beijing's ancient luster has been worn away in the past few decades, for better and worse. Loving Sabotage, a novel set in China's capital before the post-Maoist sweep of modernization, is an unlikely reminder of recent history and very different times. The capital here is still appropriately called Peking, reform of even the system of transliteration still a ways away. It is the early 1970s, and the first successes of ping-pong diplomacy reverberate so dully that they barely disturb the dust in the bleak, gray, somnolent city. It is the drabbest setting one might choose for a novel, and yet, as the thinly veiled autobiographical narrator of Nothomb's novel understands, China -- and specifically the still-mysterious China of those days -- is always something special. A Belgian diplomat's daughter, Nothomb has firsthand knowledge of any number of exotic locales: she was born in Japan, she spent her childhood in Laos, Burma, Bangladesh. These, however, do not compare to the Middle Kingdom: "China is the classic, the unconditional, the Chanel No.5", she acknowledges.
       Nothomb is no Sinophile and Loving Sabotage certainly does not romanticize what the author herself refers to as the "Neolithic era" under the Gang of Four. China is, in fact, secondary to her tale: Loving Sabotage is a heady celebration of childhood, an often hilarious literary revel in the pleasures and pains and wonder of being young and the crushing might of a child's imagination and love. Dreary, baffling Maoist China is a useful and imposing backdrop, almost incidental but, in fact, as Nothomb insists, "it RAGES throughout" the novel. Part of Nothomb's art is in how well she uses it in setting off her story.
       Loving Sabotage originally appeared in French in 1993 (as Le sabotage amoureux), the second of nine novels the young author (born in 1967) has published to date. Two others are currently available in English -- The Stranger Next Door, translated by Carol Volk (Henry Holt, 1998) and Fear and Trembling, translated by Adriana Hunter (St. Martin's, 2001)
       Not ideally served by having three different publishers and three different translators for this trio of books, Nothomb's works -- and especially the remarkable Loving Sabotage -- have thus far failed to reach the audience they deserve in the United States. By contrast, in Europe Nothomb is a consistently best-selling and award-winning author -- to the chagrin of some literary critics, who remain unimpressed by what they consider her ingenuous, preening entertainments. In Loving Sabotage, however, Nothomb's self-assurance and faux-naif approach work to best effect. The novel is a charming and clever entertainment. It is also, despite its slight appearance, both substantial and resonant.

       "Loving Sabotage tells a true story: my own", the author announces in a brief afterword appended to the American edition of this novel. Her story tells of the time between 1972 and 1975 when she and her family lived in Peking, in the diplomatic quarter of San Li Tun. This Chinese ghetto was a world apart -- and that inside a country that itself was still a world apart. San Li Tun harbored a varied group of foreign diplomatic representatives and their dependents, warehoused in these gated communities "so that they would not contaminate the Chinese". The families there were mainly Francophone (and African), but the ghetto also housed Chileans, Italians, Rumanians, and families from both West and East Germany. (Other nations -- including the Americans (under George Bush) and the Russians -- had their own, separate diplomatic compounds.)
       China was a hardship post for the adults, an inhospitable and bewildering environment; for the children it was something totally different. Nothomb, in particular, was able to takes the insensible world of the diplomatic enclave (and China itself) as given and adapt to every situation -- in marked contrast to the adults, defeated by Communist China from the moment they set foot in it.
       Amélie is five when she arrives in China. Sensibly convinced that she is Japanese (born there, it is the only country she really knows), she nevertheless quickly takes to her new surroundings. While even her ever-cheerful mother weeps at the sheer ugliness of Peking upon their arrival, Amélie is euphoric. From the first it is a place of wonder for her, in striking contrast to its grim reality. Looking back to that time the narrator describes a different, younger self, oblivious to the reality of China: "I have no awareness that my ecstasy is inappropriate. I am out of sync with the Gang of Four's China. And will be for the next three years." The girl's spirited self-delusion is heartening, from the opening scene in which she gallops down the Boulevard of Habitable Ugliness on her horse. (It is some forty pages before she allows that the horse is a bicycle: it had "taken such a mythic dimension in my life that it had achieved equine status.")
       Her first years in Peking Amélie lives in the continued childish certainty that the world revolves entirely around her. She can convincingly claim that "the universe exists so that I can exist". She lives in a world unto herself. Amélie is not isolated from her surroundings, rather she integrates them into her entirely self-centered worldview. Uniquely, therefore, nothing is foreign to her, even in this place where everything is alien. She accommodates herself to this world by allowing the world to accommodate itself to her.
       Between 1972 and 1975 a world war rages among the children in the small, international community of San Li Tun, and it is in this war that Amélie finds her calling. Reluctantly admitted to the ranks of fighter (as the baby of the group) she glories in her role as pathfinder and solitary combatant. In her utter self-absorption Amélie has no friends, happy with her own company and the tasks, goals, and duties that fulfill her. On the battlefield she finds enemies and comrades-in-arms, and it is the enemies, in particular, that she comes to love to hate: "Thanks to the enemy the unfortunate accident called life becomes an epic".
       For most of the war it is the East Germans that the others gang up against, worthy adversaries who are stronger but far fewer in number than the international brigade that opposes them. There are pitched battles and crafty raids, and prisoners are taken and punished. The scene does not quite degenerate into Lord of the Flies as the occasional interfering hands of the adults (and feeble superpower China) manage to prevent the worst excesses, but the warfare is down and dirty, the cruelty -- especially on the side of the allied forces -- of a sort only children can devise. "We were ingenious little beasts", Nothomb gleefully recalls, and it is no idle boast.
       Life gets more complicated for seven year old Amélie when the universe shifts and she finds herself no longer at its center. A new family arrives at San Li Tun, with two children. The daughter, Elena, is six years old and mesmerizingly beautiful. Amélie is immediately smitten, falling in love as soon as she sets eyes on the newcomer. She is mystified by her feelings for this girl, and confounded by the fact that Elena does not reciprocate her love and instead treats her with haughty disdain. Much of Amélie's time is then spent in trying to win the bewitching beauty over, but it is an almost hopeless undertaking. Elena is not even interested in the epic war, and so even Amélie's battlefield exploits fail to impress. The devious Belgian girl does have a few tricks up her sleeve and she manages to break up the "engagement" between Elena and one of her suitors, but Amélie's victories are small and rarely bring her closer to the object of her desires. Only when she feigns indifference does she crack Elena's hard heart, but true love is again sabotaged, preventing a rounded, happy ending.
       Young Amélie is a child, and Nothomb emphasizes her innocence throughout the novel. "Until I was fourteen," she writes, "I divided humanity into three categories: women, little girls, and buffoons", with all males fitting into the latter category. She liked women and buffoons well enough but, until she reached fourteen, thought that "love for anything but a little girl made no sense at all". She alludes to nymphet-obsessions -- Dante, Lewis Carroll, Nabokov -- but the childish love in this novel has essentially nothing to do with sex. The love between young Amélie and Elena is, however, not entirely innocent -- but instead of sex it is power that threatens its purity. First Elena and then Amélie wields power, and each abuses it. Each, in turn, is also hurt. The adults only see childish games here, but those involved suffer as keenly and profoundly as any lover or warrior, something Nothomb conveys marvelously well.
       Amélie's feelings for Elena are also a form of self-infatuation, a love not of a complementary soul but of an identical one. Elena is the idealized embodiment of a young girl (defined by Nothomb as a sexless creature with a perfect body -- perfect because it is "of no material utility" and simply a source of joy), and it is this abstraction (and childhood itself) that Amélie wants to hold onto. More than a love story, Nothomb's novel is a paean to the being she herself once was. "I always knew that adulthood didn't count," she writes. "Following puberty, all existence is but epilogue".
       Nothomb does a remarkable job of capturing the passions and single-minded obsessions of childhood. The rapture of war and the ardor of childish infatuation are convincingly presented, overwhelming emotions that Nothomb conveys with her simple but artful style. It is a book of short paragraphs, clear statements, and quick dialogue. There is little room for explanations in young Amélie's world, and barely any need for them: she accepts the world as it is, only rarely revising her convictions.
       Loving Sabotage shows the world as seen through a child's eye and then interpreted by a mature voice. It works so well because Nothomb is never condescending and never dishonest. She respects the feelings (and the philosophy) of her younger self, and, while she does not fail to see the humor in how this earnest little girl acts, she takes her seriously and treats her tenderly. Nothomb's sly empathy and her confident and sharp style -- all captured well in Andrew Wilson's crisp translation -- make Loving Sabotage a remarkable work, a beautifully rendered celebration of the wonder and pain of childhood.


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© 2001 the complete review Quarterly
© 2001 the complete review