I’m far more tolerant in fiction than in the real world. Hours of page-turning will be spent on characters I thoroughly despise, who wouldn’t last more than a few minutes in conversation or who would get a quick ‘delete’ from my social media if they expressed similar views. Or possibly an extensive reply under an offensive Daily Mail article, depending on my mood. I recently encountered such a character in Hygiene and the Assassin by Amélie Nothomb.
For hundreds of years, writers have intrigued us with deplorable characters who have little or no self awareness. It would be no fun if Catherine and Heathcliff suddenly realised their impetuous ways and the miseries they inflict on others. As the marvellous Alan Rickman said, the characters he played weren’t villains, they were “very interesting people.” There’s something compelling about being infuriated by someone.
In Nothomb’s novel (her impressive debut at the age of 25) a Nobel Prize winning author is visited by a slew of journalists all desperate to get some words of wisdom before his imminent death. One by one they are lambasted, insulted and manipulated into leaving with clever quips. As each visitor leaves, it gradually becomes apparent that this man might not be the wise scholar he is assumed to be. He is a small-minded bigot convinced of his own genius and everyone else’s inferiority. Might the author be having a dig at some of the smug established writers that inhabit so much of the white male elite? I certainly hope so.
Enter Nina, a female journalist in whom this deplorable character has finally met his verbal equal. Which, in itself, is entertaining enough. To have such a huge bulk of the novel entirely written as dialogue is risky, but the incendiary Prétextat Tach ensures the conversation turns into more of a battle to confront his bigoted notions of the world and uncover his secret past than it is a simple interview.
Not that anything as clichéd as a revelation occurs. Despite being forcefully confronted with his own ridiculous ideas, he remains obnoxiously secure in his skewed view of the world. Otherwise he wouldn’t be so interesting. Amélie Nothomb has no illusions about who holds the power in this world.
I have to admit, this is something that plagues me when I write. Producing words from the mouth of a character that I would be ashamed to utter, showing actions that grind against my moral inclinations, they’re things I often shy away from. Or if I do, I cringe as I’m writing them, usually opting to be far ‘nicer’ to my portrayal of my characters than necessary. Which is something I really need to rethink.
From House to Hans Gruber, Iago to Holden Caulfield, despicable characters with hideous intentions are often those that stay with us the longest, and have the most profound impression. Perhaps it is only through the antithesis of what we would like people to be that we glimpse the true nature of humanity.