Copyright © 1998 All Rights Reserved.
by FFWD Staff
The Stranger Next Door
by Amelie Nothomb,
translated by Carol Volk,
Henry Holt, 152 pp.
My intimates are aware that I, like many Calgarians, recently moved house. A consequent anxiety presenting itself is the need to be on good terms with neighbors. This is the stuff of the latest "novel" of Brussels resident Amelie Nothomb.
The voice is provided by Emile, a recently retired teacher of dead languages, whose wife, Juliette, completes this childless Darby and Joan couple. The two have been close since prepubescence. They are blessed with folks next door who could be described, in diplomatic circles, as awkward - a monosyllabic fat man, Palamedes, who is married to Bernadette, a Jabba the Hutt type. From this foursome an increasingly grotesque tale is woven. (Pop Up Video - Palamedes is described by Ovid as "a luckless man who dragged Ulysses off to war.")
A war, of sorts, is embarked upon, because Emile lacks the social skills to handle a simple, if annoying, relationship. Could this be due to his cloistered life in the halls of not-so-higher learning? One is left wondering if Emile is as boring and ineffectual in the bedroom as is he is in conversation. We are treated to some indication from his early life.
"We had to undress in this freezing room, which was quite an adventure. Each time we took off a piece of clothing, we screamed from the cold, which pierced us through more and more. By the time we were naked, we were nothing but a long cry of glacial suffering." He goes on to describe such experiences as "the best memories of... my life." Oh, dear!
I found myself, almost always, a few pages ahead of the plot. Some of the grotesqueness seemed excessively contrived and the idea of a cardiologist with no communication skills was an incongruity of a fairly high order. Maybe the late Roald Dahl (Kiss, Kiss etc.) would have loved this novella, but for me it served mainly to increase anxiety about my new neighbors.
Alan Egerton Ball
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