Friday, June 3, 2011
Review: Les Combustibles by Amelie Nothomb
Les Combustibles by Belgian author Amelie Nothomb asked readers an interesting question. What would you do if you had to burn all the book in your library to stay warm? This short book (just 89 pages) follows a professor, his assistant Daniel, and a student Marina as they struggle to survive in a war-torn and poverty stricken country. It is winter, and the only thing left for them to burn are the books in the university's library. The professor doesn't want to burn the books, at least not the ones he likes. Marina on the other hand could care less and wants them all burned as quickly as possible to keep her warm. Daniel cautions against burning them all at once, since each book will burn within minutes and they'd be without any source of heat for the rest of the winter. Eventually, they decide to burn one book each evening. As the days go by, the three characters argue over books and about life.
I am having the hardest time writing a review of this book, and I think you should all just go out and read it because it's really good and there's no way I can hit everything I would like to discuss in this review. I wasn't sure at first if I'd like the format of the book. It's written like a play, just dialog with only some brief "stage directions" sometimes telling you what the character's actions are. It ended up working out really well for this story. The whole book is really a long argument amongst the three characters. And it's all centered around the books and the war.
The professor, as I mentioned above, doesn't want to burn the books. He says that reading is what gives him warmth, and without books, they won't have anything to occupy their time. He states, "if we burn the books, then we've truly lost the war." He struggles with his decision of what to burn and what to keep. He asks an intriguing question to his fellow housemates in the library- "instead of 'what book would you want on a desert island', you should ask, 'what books do I have no problem burning?'"
The characters try desperately to keep some sense of their former lives before the war, and part of this involves reading books and discussing them. The professor constantly stresses how much they need to stick to their usual pre-war routine as much as possible, but Marina is ready to give up and wants to run out and get herself shot dead. The professor tries reasoning with her, saying, "the war will end someday, and you'll still be living and have to go on with life." Marina says that's impossible. How can life just go back to normal after such a horrific war? I thought about this scene a lot because the professor is so right. Marina no longer dreams about her future or having children or finishing school. She can't get passed the war. But sometimes you need to hold on to your hopes and dreams in order to stay sane and keep going day after day. As the professor puts it, "C'est la vie, mon enfant." ("That's life, my child.")
One thing I noted as I read was how as the books dwindled away, the lives of the three characters seemed to get less and less "normal". By the time they have just a few left, they are all close to giving up. I couldn't help thinking that it was because the books were almost gone. Yes, that meant that they would have no source of heat. But it also meant that they would have no more semblance of the lives they lived before the war. No more "normal" while stuck in the war. The books fueled the fire, and their minds.
I won't give away the ending, but I will say that this was a remarkable book and one that left me thinking for days after reading it. I'm the kind of person who believes that some form of normalty when faced with a bad situation is a way to keep on coping. When a loved one passes away, you keep at your normal every-day routine as much as possible, and it keeps you a little bit more sane. The books to me were a way to keep the characters sane during the harsh realities of war. I'm once again blown away by Amelie Nothomb, and I can't wait to order another box of French novels later this year, because a few more of hers will definitely be coming home to me!
Title: Les Combustibles
Author: Amelie Nothomb
Date of Publication: 2002
Number of Pages: 89
Source: Personal Copy