The blurb was not appealing at all but I was still very intrigued. It is not often I’m faced with such a unique storyline. This novella is a narrative by one Amelie Nothomb (yes, the same name as the author) with mostly exchanges of letters between her and a soldier stationed in Iraq. We subsequently discover that this soldier, Melvin Mapple, has become obese in his time overseas, in what seems to be a rebellious protest against the war. In an attempt to deal with the disgust he feels towards himself and the situation he finds himself in, Melvin has created a woman of his fat and has called her Scheherazade. With the violence around him, he closes his eyes at night and cradles ‘her’. Amelie is shocked by this revelation but she veils her shock with a sense of concern and even enthusiasm for his protesting ways. Yes, Amelie (the narrator) is ridiculing him but Melvin takes it as encouragement to further his fattening protests.
This story flirts between plausible and ridiculous. Melvin puts forward his case, how different is it when someone protests with famine? We are certainly more familiar with famine protest (Gandhi, for instance) than with an eating protest. Society is uncomfortable with obesity, as writer Lionel Shriver states, it’s so obvious and it’s a choice but is it, really? Shriver’s upcoming novel Big Brother also deals with the issue of obesity (it was heartbreaking to hear Shriver’s own story of her brother that died four years earlier of obesity). The solider in this novella often tries to explain his compulsive eating but cannot. Melvin says “Obesity is not a communicable experience.” There is the obvious theme of the psychological wounds that soldiers battle when faced with extremes of violence during war but I felt that this wasn’t the author’s focus.
I was intrigued by the narrator’s thoughts on letter writing, her preference is to write a letter to someone rather than talk to that person face-to-face. She is then told she doesn’t like people because of this preference. Nothomb replies:
I object: why should someone be more real just because you have him or her across from you? Why shouldn’t their truth stand out better, or simply different, in a letter?
It makes me think of a few people I know who are not so truthful…
The story ends with a surprising twist. This twist can only have happened because the story is mostly written in letters. Sometimes I find that different forms of writing are thrown into novels just to do something different – a poem here, song lyrics there. These elements don’t add any meaning to the story except as embellishment. In this novella, the twist only works with the letters. It’s because of the letters that events unfold, revealing truths and untruths.