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the Complete Review
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Amélie Nothomb

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To purchase Thirst

Title: Thirst
Author: Amélie Nothomb
Genre: Novel
Written: 2019 (Eng. 2021)
Length: 92 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Thirst - US
Thirst - UK
Thirst - Canada
Soif - Canada
Soif - France
Die Passion - Deutschland
Sete - Italia
  • French title: Soif
  • Translated by Alison Anderson

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Our Assessment:

B+ : engaging and distinctive spin on the Passion of Christ-story

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Le Devoir . 30/8/2019 Philippe Couture
Les Echos . 16/10/2019 Thierry Gandillot
Libération . 4/10/2019 Claire Devarrieux
L'Osservatore Romano . 8/4/2020 Lorenzo Fazzini

  From the Reviews:
  • "Avec une écriture simple, comme d’habitude, et une narration classique qui plonge dans l’intériorité du personnage, Nothomb imagine un Jésus hypercharnel qui a « choisi le camp des hommes » et qui se révolte contre Dieu." - Philippe Couture, Le Devoir

  • "Soif est, depuis Métaphysique des tubes, son meilleur roman. (...) Avec humour, Nothomb philosophe sur le corps, l'amour, la jouissance, l'ingratitude humaine, la souffrance, l'espérance, la foi, la mort… Nihil obstat." - Thierry Gandillot, Les Echos

  • "On peut rester insensible à la méditation très personnelle qui sous-tend Soif. Force est de reconnaître qu'Amélie Nothomb a accès à sa propre écorce. Elle ne faiblit à aucun moment. La croix n'est pas trop lourde pour elle." - Claire Devarrieux, Libération

  • "Quando si gira l’ultima pagina di Sete l’ultimo, spregiudicato romanzo di Amélie Nothomb (spregiudicato in senso positivo: riscrivere la Passione di Cristo dal punto di vista del Protagonista, nella Francia Anno Domini 2020, è indubbiamente una scelta controcorrente e coraggiosa), ebbene, al termine si prova la stessa sensazione di quando si assiste alla partita della propria squadra del cuore che fa sì un bel match, domina i 90 minuti, non fa quasi toccare palla agli avversari, ma spreca troppe occasioni e agguanta alla fine un pareggio che sa proprio di non vittoria. Per poi scoprire che, comunque, quel pareggio ha fatto vincere ai nostri il campionato. (...) Il colpo di genio di Nothomb in questa narrazione è la riespressione del mistero dell’incarnazione di Dio." - Lorenzo Fazzini, L'Osservatore Romano

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:

       Thirst is a retelling of the (final part of the) Passion of Christ -- his trial, crucifixion, burial, and resurrection -- all narrated by Jesus himself. Nothomb takes a few liberties with the story, as it has been passed down, -- notably in having the crucifixion take place a day after he is sentenced to death, rather than immediately ("This night I am writing from does not exist. The Gospels are categorical: my last night of freedom is set in the Garden Gethsemane") -- but mostly she follows the Biblical record quite closely. In having Jesus -- this Jesus -- tell the story, however, she also very much puts her own spin on much of it.
       Like the reader, Nothomb's Jesus knows what's coming, from the first. If there are any surprises, they are small ones; as far as the basics go, the steps ahead are all already clear as day from the get-go, and he makes abundantly clear how well aware he is of what awaits him at pretty much every turn here -- beginning with the novel's opening sentence: "I always knew I would be sentenced to death". It's an effective way of dealing with -- and re-telling -- what is, after all, not just a familiar story, but one of the most familiar there is, a central part of Christian ritual, revisited annually by hundreds of millions of believers at Easter.
       Nothomb's Jesus is, in his human form, not quite all-knowing but does have a transcendent sort of awareness; he is also, already, in part beyond time -- and then completely so after his death -- a conceit that allows him to know of things beyond his limited (physical-)life-time. It allows Nothomb to bring in, at least to some extent, documentation and interpretations of these events from much later as, for example, post-mortem Jesus notes that: "Since I have access to works of art the world over, and for ever and ever, I like looking at the descents from the cross". (He avoids looking at depictions of the crucifixion itself -- not an experience he wants to be reminded of --: "But I am very moved by those statues or paintings where I see my dead body in my mother's arms".) This awareness of all things future doesn't always work -- "Someday someone will come up with the expression 'affirmative action' to suggest what might have been my attitude toward the man we will call the good thief" -- but overall Nothomb employs it quite well (and lightly -- arguably not taking enough advantage of the possibilities such fore-sight offers). It does also allow Jesus to address some of the differences between his personal account and that found in the Bible, Jesus noting:

     I'm pointing out these issues because this is not what will be written in the Gospels. Why not ? I don't know. The evangelists were nowhere near me when this happened. And regardless of what people have said, they didn't know me. I'm not angry with them, but nothing is more irritating than those people who, under the pretext that they love you, claim that they know you inside out.
       Nothomb's Jesus' journey is a visceral experience, not least in the physical suffering he endures in his last hours, described here in quite close detail. But this Jesus has embraced the physical; he practically revels in it all his time on earth. He explains that:
In the beginning, I agreed to this crazy scheme because I believed in the possibility of changing mankind. Fat lot of good that did. I managed to change maybe three people at the very most. And besides, what an idiotic belief ! You really must know nothing about anything to think you can change someone. People change only if it comes from within, and it is extremely rare for them to really want to change.
       But for Jesus the experience, of taking on human form, was transformative. He notes, for example, that:
     I have few memories of the time before incarnation. Things literally eluded me: what can you retain from things you can't feel ? There is no greater art than that of living.
       He came to find: "The greatest joys of my life are those I have known through my body". He is certain that: "I am the most incarnate of human beings", and Nothomb has him revel in his physicality -- while he still has it -- even as much of what he experiences here is physically terribly painful.
       Taking on human form gives him a greater understanding -- and one, he argues, that his father, however all-mighty, lacks. God may have created man in his image, but in never having experienced anything in that physical form God fails to understand what it is to be human -- and some of its potential. In being so above everything else, God fails to comprehend even some of the basics -- Nothomb's Jesus pointing out:
     That really is the problem. You don't know love. Love is a story, you need a body to tell it.
       Jesus describes his passionate relationship with Mary Magdalene (whom he calls Madeleine -- "I don't like double names , and I find it tedious to call her the Magdalene. As for calling her Mary, that's out of the question. It's never a good idea to confuse your sweetheart with your mother"). Even the act of merely looking at her is compared to other physical sensations:
     Among the things I did not tell her, for the very reason that it would confuse matters, there was this: of all the joys I had known with her, none could compare with the contemplation of her beauty.
     "Stop looking at me like that," she would say every so often.
     "You are my glass of water."
     There is no greater pleasure than a glass of water when you are dying of thirst.
       As the title of the novel suggests, thirst, as Jesus understands it, is central to Nothomb's entire conception; indeed, Thirst is essentially an exegesis of what, according to John 19:28, was Jesus' penultimate utterance on the cross: Διψῶ ('I thirst'). Significantly, in Nothomb's version: "My last words were, 'I thirst'" -- while in John (19:30) he speaks again, to announce: Τετέλεσται ('It is finished'); Nothomb reverses the order of these two utterances. The novel builds up to that moment of insight, epiphany, and release that comes with these final words, 'I thirst'.
       For Jesus: "what you feel when you are dying of thirst is something you must cultivate", as it is through this that the highest, quasi-mystical state and experience can be achieved:
It takes only a moment of extreme thirst to attain such a state. And the ineffable instant when the parched man raises a glass of water to his lips: that is God.
       The last night, the path to the crucifixion, and then the suffering on the cross have Jesus cultivate his thirst, all to reach this final high-point, allowing him to move on to the next, incorporeal state.
       Grand visions of and pronouncements on concepts such as love and faith usually make a difficult fit for fiction but with its foundations on the so-familiar Nothomb's variation mostly isn't too fey or cloying. It helps that her Jesus is very human in many of his actions and reactions, admitting to emotions and, more significantly, a temperament considerably beyond the bland Biblical version of the man. A light comic touch also works well, beginning with the opening scene, describing Jesus' trial and the parade of witnesses, all the people whom Jesus performed miracles for, all having complaints about how things turned out ("When my little boy was unwell, he was quiet. Now he wiggles and screams and cries, I don't get a moment's peace, and not a wink of sleep at night".) So also, for all of Jesus' appreciation of (physical) life and humanity, he wryly has to admit: "The entire human condition can be summed up like that: it could be worse".
       Keeping God mostly at arm's-length, Nothomb addresses the larger issues through Jesus' experiences and understanding, a very human perspective that makes it more palatable than would be pronouncements merely from on high. Pointedly, Jesus repeatedly notes that God is missing parts of the big picture, and that some of his thinking is misguided -- notably, for example, the ordeal he has his son go through, beyond for the obvious reasons:
     What a blunder this crucifixion is. My father's intent was to show how far one could go out of love. If his plan had been no more than just silly, it could remain pointless. Unfortunately, it's so noxious that it's terrifying. Masses of men wil embrace martyrdom because of my foolish example. And if only it had stopped there ! Even people wise enough to choose a simple life will be contaminated. Because this thing my father is inflicting on me is proof of such deep scorn for the body that something of it will always remain.
       Thirst is a very slim novel -- extreme in its compactness, even by Nothombian standards, at less than a hundred pages in its English translation -- and if the road to Calvary and the crucifixion themselves are described at (relatively) considerable length, Nothomb does skirt over other pieces of the story rather quickly, notably the parts involving Pontius Pilate and Judas. Indeed, for better (mostly) and worse, the story is very focused and very much built up around Jesus' path to that point of uttering: 'I thirst'. Of course, Nothomb isn't merely offering a variation on the familiar story -- a retelling of the tale -- but also her own conception of love and faith. The physical/body-focus is perhaps unsurprising -- many of Nothomb's novel offer variations on corporeal extremes and excess, even if the hunger-obsessions are generally food-rather than, as here, drink-related -- and in Jesus and his suffering she has found a near ideal figure to manifest this in.
       Only occasionally slipping into the ponderous, Thirst is a surprisingly pleasantly lively novel. Some of Jesus' suffering can be hard to take, but Nothomb doesn't wallow in it, and manages to sustain a surprisingly (indeed, at times outright antithetical) cheeriness to much of Jesus' account. Nothomb conveys well how he is not resigned but in a different way at peace with his ordeal -- and ultimately fulfilled by his experience and the understanding it has given him.
       A satisfying and thoughtful take on a familiar tale.

- M.A.Orthofer, 2 April 2021

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Thirst: 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
  • See Index of books dealing with Religion

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About the Author:

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

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© 2021-2024 the complete review

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