Sulphuric Acid by Amelie Nothomb

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Sulphuric Acid by Amelie Nothomb

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: Death camp guard Zdena becomes obsessed with the sublime prisoner Pannonique - while the viewing public become ever more intrigued by the show's excesses. Think on where we're headed next time you switch on for your favourite fix of staged reality.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 140 Date: April 2008
Publisher: Faber and Faber
ISBN: 978-0571234936

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Sometimes I wonder if I'm from another planet. The quote chosen for the cover of this book says It's always fun to take a journey inside her extraordinary Belgian brain (Dan Rhodes). The inside blurb describes the book as blackly funny.

Either I missed something. Or I think differently.

I found no humour at all in these pages.

Sulphuric Acid is the sharpest, best-observed study of humanity I've found in a novella since Conrad's Heart of Darkness - and it is even more bleak.

The time came when the suffering of others was not enough for them; they needed the spectacle of it too. This is the premise. Reality television is passé.

Anyone who still subscribes to the Big Brother franchise must surely be aware of the pushing of the boundaries, the erosion of the original premise, the twisting of morality in the interests of telegenesis. The "actors" in these programmes don't matter... whether we're talking the celebrity versions or the ordinary. Since the ordinary become celebrities by dint of the programme, and the celebs are shown to be far more ordinary than we expect, there is no difference. People are people, and up-close and under-pressure, they're (we're) generally not very nice to be around.

But still the viewing figures suggest we crave more, bigger and - no, not better, worse. Infinitely worse.

Nothomb does not suggest how long it will take to reach her ultimate TV Show "Concentration" - yes, that is "Concentration" as in "Camp". The time-slot for her happening is unspecified. Much that happens and her reference to the Nazi death-camps as being 'not that old' suggests that we are talking the very near future.

In any event, as she opens the tale, the time came...

Pannonique, a young, beautiful, virginal, palaeontologist was snatched from the Jardin des Plantes. She was one of many herded onto the trucks to the studios. One of many who had not heard the announcements and didn't know where she was going or why.

Zdena a less beautiful, equally young, achiever of nothing much so far passes the tests to become a camp guard. She is proud of working in television, proud of her title as a Kapo. She will now be 'somebody'.

Zdena alienates the viewers with her blistering attack on the prisoners. Pannonique entrances them with her silence. The viewing figures climb.

Days pass and the Camp becomes a camp like all the others we've read about. The same inhumanities, the same tiny nobilities, all with the added degradation of the cameras. Perhaps one of the hopes those in the 20th century Nazi camps lay in pretending that the wider world did not know. If people knew, they would do something.

The numbered inmates of Concentration have no such luxury. The world not only knows. It watches avidly. When it figures out that the oxygen of publicity is the lifeblood of the genre, the media condemns the programme even more vehemently, even more publicly. When given the chance, the populace choose to participate - in the most obscene manner possible.

Meanwhile, as a reader we too watch. Are we any less voyeuristic for doing so? If we find it 'fun' and 'funny' then surely we are no worse than those who swell the viewing figures... and if we don't, well, then maybe we should look to our own viewing habits.

What we are watching is a prime-time re-run of Dachau or Belsen or Auschwitz. The prisoners are starved, humiliated, beaten, worked until they are too weak to stand any more of any of them, or simply too weak to stand. Then they are taken from the line... not to be anonymously removed in the 'showers' but to be painfully and publicly executed.

The similarities that Nothomb uses add so much strength to her tale. We cannot argue that we would never do this - because we all know that we already have. Not so long ago.

But as in those other camps there are those able to rise above, or step aside, from the captivity and the games played by those with the power. Pannonique is one such.

Whether or not her nemesis the Kapo Zdena will eventually prove to be one of those of the other side, still able to touch their own humanity and act upon it, is one of the main threads of the story. The guards we discover are as much manipulated by "the organisers" as are the prisoners.

I wonder about that word "organisers". In English we would call them Producers, or Directors. Is this a slip of translator's tongue - or a deliberate rendition by the author to detract from any positive connotation attracting to the latter terms?

Fun. I keep coming back to that perception of the book. And I still cannot find a trace of it. I found it powerful. The language is simple and direct. That we know so little of the characters is how it should be - how it would be if this ever came to pass. Our judgements would be founded on virtually no information, no understanding of the individuals involved.

That's one of the issues the book raises: the question of judgement. Who can pass judgement, and on what evidence? How little we think about the judgements we make. How poorly can we predict what we might do in other circumstances.

It is also a book about identity... the ability to be true to oneself and to accept the mistakes made in the attempt to discover what that 'self' actually is. There are echoes of the sixties TV show The Prisoner in the removal of identity, the forbidding of a name, the tattooing of a number. Inmates are called (by the guards and by each other) by their Numbers. A name in these circumstances takes back the significance that it might have had in earlier civilisations, but to which we give little thought these days.

In truth a name is a collection of syllables no more nor less significant than those in CZK114 - and yet for humans it means so much more. We imbue our names with meaning, personality, attachment. Why else would we name our pets or inanimate objects such as cars or ships?

Ultimately though, the question it raises is: would we really stoop this low? And if so, would we ever be able to redeem ourselves?

Perhaps I was so affected by this book because my unhesitant answer to the first question is YES.

If I was somewhat under-impressed by my last literary voyage into the world of reality television, this take on it staggers me. Tightly controlled in both plot and character, and vicious in its condemnation of both the general media and the viewing public, it raises questions that we all need to seriously consider. Not least among them: Who really decides what we watch? Where in any chain does culpability lie?

This deserves to be read - and at under 130 pages it not only deserves, but demands, to be read at a single sitting.

For another book with similar themes you might like to read The Wave.

Booklists.jpg Sulphuric Acid by Amelie Nothomb is in the Top Ten Books To Read In One Sitting.

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Magda said:

Many thoughts here - I'd obviously need to read the book.

However, one thing isn't really clear here - do the audience belive that the inmates are there out of their own volition? And are they? I think it's a fundamental question, really, in any such moral analysis of such a thing.

The other thing relates to watching versus reading, well, there IS a difference, isn't there? A difference similar (although of somehow different magnitude) to one between reading de Sade, even if only for titiliation, and watching a snuff movie; or, going even further, between playing shoot-them-up game and going to school with a machine gun.

Lesley replied:

Good questions both.

What the audience really thinks is something - I believe deliberately - left to the reader to determine. Clues are given by way of reactions in terms of viewing figures, and what is said in the media, but the author does not give us a direct insight into the mind of any member of the audience. My interpretation of this is that "we" the readers in some sense "are" the audience....the unknown populace upon whom the presentation is released, the people who vote: either directly in the interactive versions, or passively simply by watching. What do we make of it? What would we make of it, if it hit the screens tonight?

The audience are certainly not 'led to believe' that the prisoners are there of their own volition. They are "prisoners" not volunteers. The Kapos make the point that the very fact that they are prisoners, proves they deserve what is happening. They must have done something wrong or they wouldn't be here. In her piece-to-camera at the start of the show Zdena says: "if they're in prison there must be a reason for that". We're also told that the spectators were "particularly revolted" by Zdena, but there's no real suggestion that they don't believe the facts behind what she says. It is clear from the text that they are not volunteers. As I say Pannonique was 'snatched' and with the others 'herded' onto the trucks. The analogies with the Nazi round-ups of Jews and others is blatant and clear.

On watching versus reading...

- firstly a blatant error in my own writing: "Are we any less voyeuristic for doing so? If we find it 'fun' and 'funny' then surely we are no worse than those who swell the viewing figures... " should clearly have read "...are no better than.."

- then to address the question: the second example given goes beyond the original premise because it moves from voyeurism to replication; but to consider the first which is more valid, my personal view is probably that the difference (if there is one) could fall into two categories. The difference between fiction and fact. And the difference in purpose and reaction. Personally, I do not believe the difference in media is relevant.

Fiction v. Fact. My personal view is that the vicarious experience of 'horror' through purely fictional writings, films or games is perfectly acceptable. It can even be cathartic and help us to be better people in the real world. I don't believe that people commit atrocities simply because they have read or watched them...such experiences may give a 'framework' for such people to hang their deeds upon, but I personally believe that the propensity (be it inborn or acquired, a result of a misfiring of the brain connections, unresolved anger, guilt or desperation or whatever) is there already, and would most certainly find an outlet. But as I say, this extrapolation goes beyond the premise raised in either the book or the review.

When the events are real however, there are different considerations. I have to show my ignorance of just how genuine and substantiated the writings of the Marquis are, and indeed even of what he wrote. I know him by reputation only. If every event he wrote about genuinely happened, and each is as vicious as I must assume it to be from our assumption of his name (into 'sadism') then reading his work and watching a snuff movie both involve 'watching' a real person's real pain. I believe we must question our motives for and reactions to doing so.

If we do so by reason of some genuine quest for understanding, of the how and more importantly the why and most importantly what we can do to prevent it, then it has a value beyond voyeurism. If we do so for titillation or pure entertainment, then I feel we are on the level of Nothcomb's audience. We may well sympathise with the victims and throw up our hands in horror, but by our actions we support the continuance and repetition of such acts.

I want to stress though that these are MY personal reactions. Nothcomb simply raises the questions...presumably to stimulate precisely this kind of debate. That she succeeds suggests that this might be one worth taking to your local Reading Group if you have one.