Amélie Nothomb
Translated by
Andrew Wilson

(New Directions)
Loving Sabotage tells the story of children whose parents worked in the foreign service in Peking during the mid-seventies. The main focus is on an unnamed seven-year-old --- presumably the author --- and her love for a six-year-old Italian, Elena. Her love is ignored, for Elena is beautiful, haughty, more interested in a little boy by the name of Fabrice.

    "You're so beautiful I would do anything for you."

    "I've been told that before," she observed indifferently.

    "But I really mean it..."

    "Well then, I want you to run around the school-yard twenty times without stopping."

So she makes the run twenty times, and then Elena tells her to do twenty more, and she does, and Elena says twenty more, and finally our loving seven-year-old passes out. At home, in bed, she reveals all:

    My mother then launched into an explanation of the laws of the universe. She said that this world contained certain people who were very wicked and, at the same time, very appealing. She assured me that if I wanted to make one of them love me, there was only one way to go about it: I had to be equally wicked.

    "You have to do the same to her that she is doing to you."

    "But that's impossible. She doesn't love me."

    "Be like her, and she will."

So she does, and it works, for awhile. But then Elena cries and her beauty is such that our child confesses it was all a lie to win her heart --- and lovely Elena immediately turns haughty and unapproachable again.

Nothomb has chosen to tell her tale by mixing the words and fantasies of a child with the words and intellect of an adult and, surprisingly, it's believable. We accept the fact that our seven-year-old is going about the compound on her sturdy steed (which, we find out mid-way through, is a bicycle) and at the same time, she is spouting the wisdom of Wittgenstein, Baudelaire, Mallarmé, and Stendal --- with references to the Decameron, international politics, and, on the subject of loving little girls,

    When the little girl is pretty, when a little girl is beautiful, Italy's greatest poet devotes his entire output to her, a towering English logician loses his reason to her, a Russian writer flees his homeland in order to name a dangerous novel after her, and so it goes. Because little girls drive one mad.

If this were only the story of child-love it would be entertaining enough. But the author is able to convey the world of the young in spry and delightful ways. Diplomat's sons and daughters have little to do in an alien and suspicious country so they form gangs. For awhile, they see their job is to torture the East Germans. They capture them, piss on them, vomit on them, and then turn them loose. The East Germans capture them and beat up on them some, and then turn them loose. In school, they are taught how to make paper airplanes. Meanwhile Nothomb makes sly commentary on their Chinese hosts --- all with "the singular name of Chang," the ugliness of Peking, and the wars of adults:

    Too many people think they want war, when all they actually crave is a duel.

Loving Sabotage is a fine ride on a smart steed, but a sour note turns up on the last page when our author steps out of her narrative role to tell us that there actually was a lovely girl named Elena that she craved when she was a seven-year-old in Peking. By chance, not long ago, Elena read her story and demanded a meeting with the writer "to set things straight."

Up to this point, Nothomb has established a delicate balance of reality and fantasy --- touched by an adult narrator. Like children, we believed her --- but on page 136, she pops our balloon. Let's hope that she will dump her sour "Afterword" if and when she brings out another edition so we can preserve the delight of a different tale of child-love.

---Sandra MacPhearson

The Divine Duty
Of Servants
A Book of Worship
Rolando Perez
(Cool Groove)
One has to be rather fond of feet and coprology and urinary diversions and humility and sex-slavery to get much out of this one. Further, one has to figure out who made all these steamy things come together. It may be the eccentric Polish novelist Bruno Schultz from pre-WWII who made drawings of fetishism and masochism which then, not long ago, came to the attention of Malcolm McKesson, a wealthy Harvard graduate who "drempt of being turned into a pretty girl, dressed in delicate garters, bras, pantyhose, and fantasized becoming...a pretty servant girl."

These two then go through a further union --- if that's the right word --- in the hands of Rolando Perez (philosophy major, librarian), who presents us with appropriate fuzzy close-up photographs, along with quotes from the likes of James Joyce, Kafka, the Bible, Bataille, the Pope, and characters like Circe, Mr. Clean, the Ratman, Gregor, and Howard Hughes, complete with chapter headings like "The Book of Idolatry," "Domestication #2: The Whip," and "The Tribe of Pariahs."

It's all a bit trying, unless one is interested in wandering around naked on all fours on the floor being wet on by a tall woman with a commanding presence and a big whip. Outside of that (outside of that!) it doesn't make much sense.

    Have him suck your toes, and for that he will be infinitely grateful. Have him lick the soles of your feet, and for that he will be your slave forever. You will see him on all fours sticking your whole foot into his mouth, licking it, sucking on it, like a well-trained dog sucking on his bone.


--- Mary L. Perkins

Gertrude Bell
The Arabian Diaries,
1913 - 1914

Rosemary O'Brien,

(Syracuse University Press)
She was one of those dratted turn-of-the-century Englishwomen who did everything she damn well pleased. She forced her way into Oxford, even though women were "set apart in classes, forbidden to use the libraries or to receive degrees..." In one class, she was forced to sit with her back to the professor.

Well, if she could bulldoze her way into turn-of-the-century Oxford, she could travel, on camelback, through the wildest parts of Arabia, which she did between 1913 and 1914. It was just Bell and a small band of retainers and porters.

She went under the aegis of the English foreign secretary Edward Grey. Ostensibly, she was to "gather information" about the various tribesmen of the Syrian Desert, and report on the German influence in the area. Her journey took her from Baghdad over to Damascus and from thence several hundred miles to the south, until she turned east and then north up through Najaf and then returned to Baghdad. The obvious advantage for the Foreign Office was that few would suspect such an elegant and no-nonsense lady of spying.

In her travels, she met up with T. E. Lawrence, but her heart-throb was an English vice-counsel named Maj. Charles Doughty-Wylie. For some reason, she found --- according to editor O'Brien --- something mystical in his "hooded eyes." His photograph makes him look like a rapacious Chamberlain --- but such was her passion that all of her notes were addressed to him. Thus, this book makes up an extended series of love-letters from her to him, in the restrained Edwardian style.

The desert was wild not only with dust and storms, but warring tribes, none of whom trusted anyone else, much less strangers. It was probably the very weirdness of this thin-faced lady turning up on camel, speaking excellent Arabic, that saved her from rapine. Her vision of the Syrian Desert and its inhabitants was touched by a romantic spirit, but she was able to see the meanness of the lives of women who had been kidnapped, forced to be wife --- one of many --- to the local Sheiks.

But where she achieves greatness is in the vignettes of beauty that, somehow, she was able to create out of this barren nowheresville. This from April 25, 1914:

    We were off before dawn, a clear still morning. And before we had been on our way two hours a great storm marched across our path ahead of us. We, riding in a world darkened by its august presence, watched and heard. The lightening flickered through the cloud masses, the thunder spoke from them and on the outskirts companied of hail, scourged and bend by a wind we could not feel, hurried over the plain and took possession of the mountains. Do you remember Shelley's song to the Spirit of Delight?

      I love snow and all the forms
      of the radiant frost;
      I love wind and rain storms, anything almost
      That is Nature's and may be
      Untouched by man's misery.

Can you imagine some CIA operative in present day Syria quoting a verse from Shelley in his official report? The printing and layout of the diaries, and the photographs, are glorious, a true credit to Syracuse University.

--- Priscilla Fenley-Worth

Go Home     Subscribe to RALPH     Go Up