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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

     

The Character of Rain
(Métaphysique des tubes)

by
Amélie Nothomb


general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase The Character of Rain



Title: The Character of Rain
Author: Amélie Nothomb
Genre: Novel
Written: 2000
Length: 171 pages
Original in: French
Availability: The Character of Rain - US
. The Character of Rain - UK
. The Character of Rain - Canada
. Métaphysique des tubes - Canada
The Character of Rain - India
. Métaphysique des tubes - France
. Metaphysik der Röhren - Deutschland
Metafisica dei tubi - Italia
  • French title: Métaphysique des tubes
  • Translated by Timothy Bent
  • Shortlisted for the Prix Goncourt 2000

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Our Assessment:

A- : disarming autobiographical tale of infancy, from Nothomb's usual unusual perspective

See our review for fuller assessment.




Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Economist . 25/11/2000 .
L'Express . 24/8/2000 Thierry Gandillot
Lire A 10/2000 Pascale Frey
Le Monde A 1/9/2000 Hugo Marsan
The NY Times B+ 17/4/2002 Richard Eder
Le Parisien A 26/8/2000 .
TLS C 17/12/2004 Caroline McGinn
Die Welt . 13/4/2002 Jochen Förster


  Review Consensus:

  Generally find it amusing and clever.

  From the Reviews:
  • "In Métaphysique des tubes, Amélie Nothomb describes with a witty lightness the first three years of a Belgian consul's baby in Japan." - The Economist

  • "Ce qui aurait pu être ennuyeux et égocentrique devient sous la plume de cette jeune diablesse des lettres un récit aussi drôle qu'insolent." - Pascale Frey, Lire

  • "L'intrépide romancière s'attaque sans vergogne à un grave sujet. Sa lucidité, son intelligence, sa paisible folie y font merveille et son humour gomme la cruauté du constat et l'ambition du projet. (...) En un habile tour de passe-passe, la romancière recolle les deux parties de son récit artificiellement juxtaposées et l'écriture sobre, ramassée, brillante, en camoufle les cicatrices." - Hugo Marsan, Le Monde

  • "Ms. Nothomb has attempted, with some success, to perform an amalgam of memory and a devised artistic heightening of it. The devising is most successful in this first part, with its wildly comic and poetic suggestion of the potential locked within the infant brain." - Richard Eder, The New York Times

  • "Son génie de la boutade et son audace verbale lui permettent de faire ingurgiter les notions les plus abstraites, qu'elle sait rendre aussitôt familières. (...) Elle s'amuse, Amélie. Nous aussi, ravis." - Le Parisien

  • "Inside The Character of Rain is a decent short story, an autobiography (an auto-mythology really) of the author's first three years (.....) But it is when she starts philosophizing that her deadpan expression becomes iredeemably po-faced." - Caroline McGinn, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Das klingt einigermaßen gaga und ist es auch. Dennoch fällt die Schlaumeierei Nothombs durch deren Selbstverständlichkeit kaum ins Gewicht. Dafür hat das Buch alles, was Nothomb ausmacht. Das Tempo, die Geschichten, knackige Sätze (...) und witzige Szenen wie die, als Papa in die Kanalisation fiel. Insgesamt ist Metaphysik der Röhren Nothombs inhaltlich wirrstes Buch -- und gerade deshalb ihr wohl persönlichstes." - Jochen Förster, Die Welt

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       It is an odd title. A book of tubal metaphysics ? (It seems a safe bet that no prospective American publisher of this work will even consider allowing the word "metaphysics" to remain in the title. (Surprise, surprise: all they managed to make of it was the bland: The Character of Rain.)) An autobiographical fiction, Métaphysique des tubes in fact recounts the author's first three years -- material that also might not sound that promising. An autobiographical account of one's infancy ? Sounds too precious even for Mlle. Nothomb. But considering what she did in what remains one of the best books about early childhood, the masterful Loving Sabotage (see our review), one must put aside possible reservations and not judge the book by its cover (i.e. title and outline). And Nothomb does not disappoint.
       In the beginning there is not Amélie, there is only God. And God was a tube. Nothomb begins her novel not in the first person but in the third, describing the being at the beginning of its/her existence. The being is nothing less than God. All God does at this early stage is indifferently ingest, digest, and excrete: nothing more than a tube. It is not a bad existence:

Il connaissait la sérénité absolue de cylindre. Il filtrait l'univers et retenait rien.

(It knew the absolute serenity of the cylinder. It filtered the universe and retained nothing)
       The tube's parents and doctors are less impressed by the being. It is supposed to be a baby, but it really is little more than a tube, lying inertly, never crying, never moving. The doctors diagnose the child as being a vegetable. The parents nickname it "la Plante" (the plant). It's not the worst thing: they already have a boy and a girl, and at least it isn't much bother (all they have to do is feed it and clean it, it never seems to need anything else).
       The tube accepts the world as is -- however that may be:
Manger ou ne pas manger, boire ou ne pas boire, cela lui était égal: être ou ne pas être, telle n'était pas sa question.

(To eat or not to eat, to drink or not to drink, it was all the same to it: to be or not to be was not its question.)
       Even when its parents experiment to see exactly how indifferent the tube is they can't get it to react. So, for some two years, it stays in its basically vegetative state -- only to awaken with a vengeance. Suddenly it moves and it cries. Frustrated by its inability to speak it cries loudly and interminably. It becomes "l'insomnie personnifiée" (insomnia personified), and the parents fondly remember their little Plant of old. The helpful doctors revise their diagnosis: earlier it had suffered from pathological apathy, now they say it suffers from pathological irritability.
       The defining moment for the tube comes with the arrival of grandma from Belgium. Proffering a piece of white chocolate to the tube the Belgian grandmother is able to effect the transformation of the being. This sweet taste awakens something within. The tube is still the centre of the universe but now it has an identity and a different awareness of the world around it -- a world that can offer such sweet pleasures as white chocolate. And, accordingly, Nothomb switches to the first person in her narrative.
       This is her true birth then, in February, 1970, in Shukugawa in the Kansai region of Osaka. She still feels a certain affinity for tubes, identifying a vacuum cleaner as an obvious relative -- and even choosing "aspirateur" (vacuum cleaner) as the third word she utters (after diplomatically pleasing her parents by addressing them as "Maman" and "Papa"). The world and her interaction with it become somewhat more complicated (since she finally is actually interacting with it), but the land of the Rising Sun, where young children are venerated and coddled is an ideal environment for the tiny goddess.
       Young Amélie's governess, Nishio-san, adores her and can't refuse her anything. Fine by Amélie, who much prefers being Japanese -- adored, surrounded by beauty -- than, as her parents ridiculously claim, Belgian -- a concept that she can't do much with.
       Still, the inevitable disappointments of childhood also come. There is another household help, Kashima-san, who does not show little Amélie due respect, not taking her at all seriously. "De même qu'il y'a l'Antéchrist, elle était le Anté-moi" (Just as there is an Antichrist she was the Anti-me).
       There are a variety of dramatic events: a near-drowning and numerous falls and tumbles (by both Amélie and her father). Amélie's fascination with carp -- open-mouthed they look like tubes -- is misunderstood by her parents, leading to a disappointing birthday surprise (and other consequences). Her father, who has a baffling job (Belgian consul in Osaka) turns out also to be the only Western practitioner of the art of singing No (having inadvertently stumbled into learning this ancient Japanese art).
       Amélie's childhood is not shattered by the end of the book, but she comes to recognize that her paradise will not last. She learns that her governess, Nishio-san, will eventually leave, and that the family will eventually leave Japan too. Life goes on (unimaginable for the tube, for whom there is no beginning or end or change !).
       But the cloud remains somewhat distant here, the three-year old's life still whole at the conclusion of the book, when nothing more need be said because nothing more of significance happens. (Loving Sabotage is a reassuring sequel, showing that young Japanese girl then managed the transition into the next world (from infancy to childhood) with spectacular aplomb.)

       Métaphysique des tubes is a charming, clever, and always amusing novel. Nothomb handles the difficult material (especially the earliest period) with a convincing self-confidence, making for a neat take on childhood. The character is surprisingly rich, its/her thoughts cleverly handled. An enjoyable read.

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Links:

The Character of Rain: Reviews: Amelie Nothomb: Other books by Amélie Nothomb under review: Books about Amélie Nothomb under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of French literature at the complete review

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About the Author:

       Belgian author Amélie Nothomb was born in Kobe, Japan, August 13, 1967.

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