For those less familiar with contemporary French literature, let me briefly introduce the author whose works this article will discuss. Amélie Nothomb is a prolific, popular author of Belgian origin who since 1992 has been publishing a book each year, along with a number of short stories. The child of diplomats, Nothomb was raised abroad as her family changed countries every three to five years. While her literary production is principally fiction, her greatest successes have come with autobiographical works, many of which deal in part or in whole with her peripatetic upbringing and her young adulthood, especially in Japan. This author's media presence in Belgium and especially in France abetted the commercial success of her writing. To some degree, however, this popularity has also acted as an impediment to critical appreciation among institutional scholars in Francophone Europe.
This article will look at the writing of two traumatic text-events in Nothomb's works. First, I will examine how Nothomb takes in, transforms, and apparently bears witness to the jarring memory of a preceding generation. Then I will explore how this secondhand or postmemory of a trauma in someone else's life gives indirect access to a personally lived one in Nothomb's life, an event that for many years was forbidden direct expression: her rape at twelve years of age. In tracing the connections between represented postmemory and displaced, traumatic, personal memory, [End Page 75] I want not only to investigate what its rich and curious figurations tell us but also to see how gender and possibly its erasure are represented.
Although Nothomb's family has an outwardly simple genealogical lineage (her father is a hereditary baron), her characters and autobiographical narrators have what might modestly be characterized as a complicated relationship to previous family generations, in particular to parent figures. Indeed, a close reading of several of Nothomb's works reveals the return of numerous scenes of violence that function as a moment of rupture with a biological family. This hardly hidden desire to break the generational chain that binds child to parent can be seen as an integral part of a persistent "family romance" in Nothomb's literary imagination. The family romance, according to Freud and others, such as Marthe Robert or Marianne Hirsch, may be seen as part of a child's normal drive to seek independence by pushing away parents through the creation of a fantasy or a "romance" of different origins.1 Typically a child develops a fantasy that he or she was born of other parents, but major variants include imagining one is a foundling or an orphan. While some characters in Nothomb's writing actively eliminate their parents in order to become orphans (which is another way of saying that they murder them), others find themselves through various circumstances suddenly left parentless. One of the earliest of these examples is the protagonist from her 1997 novel, Mercure.2 Hazel loses her parents to a bomb blast while the family is travelling along a road in Normandy at the end of World War I: "On a nearly empty road, we were a provocative prey for an air raid. I awoke an orphan on a stretcher." ("Sur une route presque déserte, nous étions une proie provocante pour tout bombardement aérien. Je me suis réveillée orpheline sur une civière.")3
This particular example should draw our attention because losing one's parents in a bombing, near war's end, returns as one of the key scenes in what is perhaps Nothomb's greatest memory work, Métaphysique des tubes, published in 2000.4 This book's autobiographical narrator recounts a child's experience from birth to the age of three in late 1960s and early 1970s Japan where she unwittingly weaves through her narration a systematic family romance. The anonymous infant-protagonist initially ignores [End Page 76] the existence of her parents: she remains an inert and mute "tube" for the first two years of life, refusing not only to acknowledge the name she was given at birth (it never appears in this book) but even a gender or, more extreme, a...