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A Winter Journey, by Amélie Nothomb

September 5, 2010 9 comments

Le Voyage d’hiver, by Amélie Nothomb, read by Thibault de Montalembert. 

Yesterday, I subscribed to my local media library. As I was to accomplish a repelling amount of housework during the week-end, I decided to find solace in audio books. That’s how I borrowed “Le Voyage d’hiver”, which has not been translated in English yet. On Wikipedia, the English title I found was “The Winter Journey”. But I would rather use the word “trip” than “journey” as the drug-related meaning of “trip” has a sense in this story. 

The book opens with the narrator – we will learn later that his name is Zoïle, sitting at Charles de Gaulle airport and waiting for the 1:30 pm flight for somewhere. The destination doesn’t matter as he intends to hijack the plane and crash it. He is writing his first and last diary to explain how he got idea to commit such a crime even if relating his story is pointless as his journal is bound to disappear with him in the crash.

Zoïle, whose name comes from a Greek sophist philosopher, works for EDF (1) and visits destitute people to help them reduce their heating bills by financing house improvements on thermal insulation. (2) He thus meets Astrolabe and her autistic room mate Aliénor. When he first rings at their flat, he knows that Aliénor is a writer and mistakes her for Astrolabe. He could not imagine that the gifted writer could be this ugly autistic simpleton while her beautiful friend was an ordinary person. He falls in love with Astrolabe and they start a peculiar love relationship.  

Amélie Nothomb plays with names, with literary references. Her prose is liquid, funny, easy to read/hear. Music has a decisive impact on events, the title refers to a lead by Schubert and the music of Aphex Twin (apparently a British group doing electronic music, but I don’t know about them) is heard at the climax of the book.

On a second level of reading, Aliénor and Astrolabe seem to be the division of Amélie Nothomb herself. The names both starts with an “A”. In Aliénor, we hear “alien” and “aliéné”, which means “insane” in French. Aliénor is other and insane. Astrolabe, which means “star-taker”, is nursing Aliénor, protecting her. She translates in intelligible language the books Aliénor dictates. They have an intense relationship, as if they were one unique person.  

I probably wouldn’t have bought this book. It’s a short one, less than 150 pages and only a two hours listening. Maybe it is what Anglophones call a novella, but I’m not sure. This concept has no equivalent in French and though I understand what it is, I still struggle to figure out if a book is a novel or a novella.

 I had a good time listening to The Winter Journey. Amélie Nothomb has a witted and funny style. Better, she just knows how to tell good stories with strange characters, and all the while insert subtle remarks on love, hate, beauty, ugliness and human behaviour.

This book doesn’t bring anything new to literature or will probably not be read in twenty years but it is good entertainment.

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 (1) The French electricity company

(2) I think that this kind of program really exists, to meet the Kyoto Protocol engagements on saving energy to fight against global warming.

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