Sulphuric Acid

The time came when the suffering of others was not enough for them; they needed the spectacle of it, too.

Without warning, ordinary people are snatched from their world of casual freedom and transported en mass by cattle-tuck to a detention camp, boasting only one significant difference from those used by the Nazis – everything is filmed. With great care, ordinary people are selected from the applicants to be the guards – if they can look and act the part, the rest will come naturally. This is Concentration, where reality television has reached a new level – it doesn’t get more real than unjust death.

Written by Amélie Nothomb and translated by Shaun Whiteside, Sulphuric Acid comes out of nowhere like a mugger, batters you (emotionally), then is gone as quickly as it arrived. It certainly snatches your attention; the difference is that it leaves something with you too – exactly what it leaves is another matter. We enter this world alongside Pannonique, a lovely young woman amongst more ordinary victims, all of whom are forced to work hard pointless labour as they are slowly starved and harshly beaten, with the weakest or least entertaining contestants regularly taken away to die. Realising that to react plays into the hands of their captors, she closes herself off – but her statuesque resilience makes her a national icon and makes the programme an astounding success.

Aside from having an enchanting name, Pannonique is presented as universally appealing: beautiful, generous, intelligent, well meaning, wilfully idealistic and courageous. Far more interesting then is her principle adversary, the superficially simple-minded Zdena. Less than unremarkable in life, she first seeks nothing more than to fulfil a role, any role; passing the tests to become a Kapo is the first achievement of her life. For embracing the twin excuses of “they must have done something” and “only following orders”, her cruelty towards the prisoners makes her a national scapegoat, reviled by the audience to salve their continued guilty pleasure. Zdena too becomes obsessed by Pannonique, first dimly seeing and hating her as the embodiment of everything she herself lacks, then growing enchanted; but they are on different sides of a crucial line and though Zdena wields all the power Pannonique refuses to bend.

The chapters flick by, channel-hopping between the elfin heroine, her butch and brutal Kapo admirer, the callously self-interested TV executives and the callously interested audience. I found it powerfully affecting stuff (I’d been reading it right before sleep and having rather unpleasant dreams the last few nights) right up until the finale. But I’m not sure if I enjoyed where it goes in those ultimate pages.

My impression on closing the book was that, after rapidly accelerating through the cruelties towards a cataclysmic finish, at the final moments Nothomb sheaths her claws and pulls that final punch – but I’m not so sure it’s that simple. Like the fictional audience made complicit simply by watching, the reader is denied that sweetest taste of blood which Pannonique represented. I was certainly moved by the story throughout, it is angry, passionate material; yet I felt I had been cheated out of some bestial catharsis in the end, which may have been the intention, but still left me feeling cheated. A bit. I think.

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