The time came when the suffering of others was not enough for them; they needed the spectacle of it too” –Acide Sulfurique (Sulphuric Acid) – Amélie Nothomb
Initial thoughts: Isn’t it exciting to dive into a novel of which you know nothing about save for its title, author and cover image? When I picked up Acide Sulfurique (translated: Sulphuric Acid) from the sparsely filled shelves of the French section of my local library, I was struck by the cover image (which you can view here). The cover image features a butterfly which flew into a glass and broke its wing. I cannot say why I am so intrigued by this cover image. Perhaps it is because it is unusual and unlikely, almost surreal. There is something unsettling about this image. And yet, in such a calamity, a disturbing image can become beautiful.
One day, out of nowhere, the lovely Pannonique is pulled of the streets at random and lands a role as a participant on a new reality television show called “Concentration.” In this camp, participants are prisoners subjected to torture, dehumanization and even… death at random, all in the name of entertainment. Pannonique is stripped of her identity, including her name, and she is reborn as CKZ 114. One of the guards of “Concentration,” Zdena, is desperate to uncover CKZ 114’s name, and discover the thoughts behind her expressionless demeanour. Meanwhile, spectators are disgusted by this new television show. But… they can’t stop watching.
About the Book
Title: Acide Sulfurique (translated title: Sulphuric Acid)
Author: Amélie Nothomb
Year Published: 2005
Genres: Fiction, Dystopian literature, French literature
Before you say, “this sounds like The Hunger Games… wow, what a rip-off!” I can assure you that this novel isn’t a rip-off or copycat. Acide Sulfurique was published in 2005. While I was reading this novel, I couldn’t help but make parallels between The Hunger Games and Acide Sulfurique. Overall, The Hunger Games is a perfect novel to translate to the cinema for its action and fast-paced narrative structure. Acide Sulfurique is purely horrific without any action or romance to detract from the cruelties the participants face on a day to day basis. It may not be cinematic, but it is the sort of novel that will haunt you with ethical questions after you’ve set it down for the night.
Have you ever found yourself flipping through television channels and landing on an absurd reality t.v. show? I have. I remember asking myself during every single commercial break… why am I watching this? This is trash! Is it because I am so disgusted that I can’t look away? Or is it because deep down, I am actually enjoying this? In Acide Sulfurique, the plot for a reality television show like “Concentration” wouldn’t go over so well with the public. Or would it? Would we be so disgusted that we would have no choice but to tune in to see who lives and who dies? Nothomb leaves this for us to decide. However, aren’t there many true horrors that we have seen on television and on the Internet that we have turned a blind eye to? We may say “that’s terrible!” and yet, after a while we return back to our own lives without batting an eye. We may not remember that these images could be another person’s reality.
The novel itself is short and sweet, but it is very profound and frankly terrifying. Many dystopian novels are very focused on demonstrating the mechanics of society, or how society came to be a dystopia. They may follow a protagonist as they begin to realize how fundamentally flawed their society is, but most dystopian novels tend to reveal the inner workings of society through the perspective of the narrator. Acide Sulfurique rarely presents an outside perspective aside from the occasional collective outrage or opinions from the spectators. The spectators’ opinions are interesting as they show how far removed they are from Pannonique’s reality. The public is quick to brand individuals into characters or two-dimensional stereotypes. Whenever someone is killed off, the reaction is similar to someone’s favorite character from a soap opera being killed off. This dehumanization uses the comforting removal of immediacy through the television screen. Meanwhile, the hired guards are presented as the villains of the show, and all the spectators can do is write about their outrage and keep tuning in.
This question “what is good and what is evil” is often at the forefront of Amélie Nothomb’s works. It’s a necessary question, but it is one that will no doubt make you uncomfortable. As this is my fourth Amélie Nothomb novel, the tension between defining right and wrong, and good and evil can be present in many different incarnations. Honestly, it’s fascinating to think about, and a little maddening at the same time.
At any rate, once again “BRAVO AMÉLIE NOTHOMB!” for a unique, eccentric, surreal, thought-provoking novel. I would recommend this book to older Hunger Games fans who are looking for something similar without being a young adult novel, dystopian literature fans, and of course, fans of the brilliant Amélie Nothomb.
Final Rating: B
Until next time,