On the Docket: Sulphuric Acid by Amelie Nothomb (Translated by Shaun Whiteside)

Genre: Literary / Fable

The Plot: In a distant dystopian future, officials have decided to create a reality television show called Concentration in which people are forced to live in a death camp for the entertainment of an audience. Cameras are present at every turn to record the suffering of the prisoners. The fable-like story follows Pannonique (a prisoner), Zdena (a guard), and the unit to which they belong.

First Impressions: There appears to be a theme among the novels I’ve been reading lately. Many are translations. Why? I’m not sure. Coincidence, I suppose. Also, they all seem to have an underlying thread of discussion: celebrity culture. The notion of reality television has become a fascinating topic of conversation among writers and cultural theorists, and rightfully so. With the success of Survivor and Big Brother (only two of hundreds), it is not difficult to understand the preoccupation. I’m sure we’re all guilty (I know I am!) of participating in some of these “guilty pleasures”. Undeniably, the culpability of the audience is always at the forefront of the discussion. As a result, the reader is clearly being implicated in the violence of Nothomb’s imagining of Concentration.

I have never in my life read anything quite like this novel. The parallels drawn between the Holocaust and this story are obvious but startling. Nothomb is spectacularly observant. Not only does she commit to the subject matter bravely and transparently, she does so with tenacity. Scotland on Sunday calls Nothomb “stiletto-sharp”; I’ can’t agree more. Sulphuric Acid is only slightly over 120 pages long but there isn’t a single wasted word.

Highly, highly recommended! The pressure-cooker situation in which these characters are thrust is an unusual lesson in human behaviour. At times, the atmosphere is reminiscent of Orwell’s 1984 but Nothomb is clearly doing something different with her prose. She is not afraid to make accusations but she is also very willing to see the mistake of assigning labels like “good” and “evil”. She openly admits that the gray area between the two is undeniably difficult to navigate.

Final Verdict: Part meditation on humanity, religion, and the power of cruelty, part discussion of modern technology and celebrity culture, this novel is not to be missed. Although the “fairy-tale” ending has the potential of throwing the reader off course, the text retains its charm until the very last page.