‘The Life of Hunger’ by Amélie Nothomb

My rating: 4 stars

Amélie Nothomb is not merely the author of The Life of Hunger, she is also its narrator and main character. Nevertheless, this is not a non-fiction book. It is a fictional memoir which introduces a girl and a young woman permanently hungry, not only for food, but also for almost everything life can provide. As the daughter of a Belgian diplomat, she experienced various forms of hunger in different cities and countries – Japan, Peking, New York, Bangladesh.

At the beginning of the book, Amélie remembers the moment when she received a parcel from a gentleman national of Vanuatu, a small and remote island, where the population has never known hunger. They’ve always had plenty of natural resources, more than enough for the short number of inhabitants. In this context, she defends that in the West we have the habit of overeating, because we see hunger in the streets. Also, we have a “keen” appetite, as we work in order to have money to buy things.

But the hunger Nothomb writes about is also connected with the aspiration of constantly having something present, and with the endless existence of something to do and to pursue. Since she was really young, she has always wanted more from games, books, toys, stories. She aspired to infinity, including from sugary things, although her mother tried to thwart her.

“God isn’t chocolate, he’s the encounter between chocolate and a palate capable of appreciating it.”

Despite being from a Belgian family, Amélie considered Japan her real home. The first memories she shares are from Tokyo, where her father worked for some time as a consul. At the age of five, she moved with her family to Peking but didn’t forget the country she left behind. One of the reasons why this memoir is at least partly fictional is that she couldn’t possibly remember all of the events narrated, since she was younger than five when she first lived in Japan, for example.

When she was 12 years old, she endured a painful experience. But its psychological consequences are not fully developed and explained. It’s not clear if the changes she experienced afterwards were the result of her becoming a teenager, or if that occurrence also played a significant part. In fact, I think the events that took place during her teenage-years should have been more explored in general.

Nevertheless, I rather enjoyed the writing style and the humorous undertones. The way in which she pokes fun at herself is quite amusing.

“So I, a total ignoramus, flicked through the picture book. I am notorious for not knowing anything: my opinions are the least interesting in the universe. Not least because I have none.”

Amélie Nothomb appears to be quite ironic too, because, as we realise while reading this book, she has plenty of opinions and interesting thoughts to share.

The Life of Hunger is a collection of reminiscences by a grown-up woman about her younger self. Although the imagination of a child is perceptible at times, I could almost picture an older Nothomb remembering her childhood and filling in the gaps with some fictional events when her memory betrayed her.


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