Loving Sabotage

Amélie Nothomb

translated from the French by Andrew Wilson
New Directions 2000
A book review by Danny Yee © 2004 http://dannyreviews.com/
The narrator of Loving Sabotage (Le sabotage amoureux) is five when she arrives in Beijing in 1972 as the daughter of a Belgian diplomat. She joins the other children roaming unsupervised in the diplomatic enclave, engaged in a war which pits everyone else against the East Germans. She is happy with her status as a pathfinder and her expeditions on her bicycle — which she has convinced herself is a horse — until, when she is seven, she falls madly in love with the six year old Italian girl who moves in next door. This story is autobiographical; in an afterward Nothomb claims everything in it is true.

The children's war is carried out with a nastiness that only children could envisage: the Allies' Secret Weapon involves a bathtub filled with their collected urine. Parental control is limited — when a truce with the East Germans is eventually enforced, the children simply declare war on the Nepalese — and even the Chinese authorities are happily defied.

"In that nightmare of a country, the adult foreigners lived depressed and uneasy lives. What they saw revolted them; what they didn't see revolted them even more.
Their children, however, were having the time of their lives."
Nothomb's anguished unrequited love offers a counterpoint to this, with her futile attempts to gain the affections of the precocious femme fatale Elena. And then there's her teacher, who tries to make the class write a collective story...

Loving Sabotage treats the experiences of childhood seriously, but there's no pretence that the viewpoint is that of a child. Nothomb explains and reinterprets her experiences with the benefit of later learning — "In 1974, I read neither Wittgenstein nor Baudelaire nor even The People's Daily". There's no room for anything profound, but she includes some shrewd observations: on China under the Gang of Four, on the way Westerners perceive China, and on the nature of love.

The tone is light-hearted but the sentiment serious, combining the emotional intensity of the child and the intellectual perspective of the adult, the innocence of youth and the insights of age. And it's all done deftly, with prose that perfectly balances the competing demands on it. Loving Sabotage is a glorious little novel.

April 2004

External links:
- buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.de
- review and links at the Complete Review
Related reviews:
- Amélie Nothomb - Fear and Trembling
- more French literature
- books published by New Directions
%T Loving Sabotage
%A Nothomb, Amélie
%M French
%F Wilson, Andrew
%I New Directions
%D 2000 [1993]
%O hardcover
%G ISBN 0811214591
%P 136pp