Nothomb‘s novel Acide Sulfurique is trying hard to be as close as possible to abstraction, leaving almost any concrete description of events behind the curtain. The reader’s imagination is not supposed to complete the missing parts, for the abstraction is the essence here, a skeleton to be perceived and experienced in its bear form.
The story is, therefore, deliberately simple: a reality show named “Concentration”, representing a Nazi concentration camp. The Kapos are elected in an American Idol style of filtering, while the prisoners are randomly abducted from the streets. From this point on it’s a chain of almost pure concepts: animals’ wagons stuffed with people of all ages; numbers tattooed on the prisoners’ hands; dehumanization; starvation; rape; death. Added to these concepts are omni-present cameras that capture every possible audio-visual signals. Materials are edited, and then there’s the daily night show. In the society of the spectacle the rating is great, but when it starts to stagnate “interactivity” is introduced into the show, the audience being asked to participate in the daily “death selections” (performed so far by the Kapos) by means of sending SMSes with the prisoners’ alpha-numeric IDs whose life are to be taken. Remind you – anything in this camp, on this show, is real.
And although intuition warns that this kind of book is about to fall into the banality trap, the opposite happens. Because no description – but the evocation of the above concepts – is provided, banality is avoided. Moreover, the fact that the book is mainly structure, allows Nothomb to introduce a surprisingly powerful technique – an effectively shocking one – which turns you, the reader, into as hideous collaborator as those disgusting-yet-all-human audience of the concentration show.
Our lady of the tombs gives you, reader, a choice: you can restore your human simulacra by closing the book and not reading it further, the equivalent of shutting down the TV set. Or you could keep on reading and see yourself turning, in real-time, into a disgusting voyeur of a hideous reality. And as she’s aware of the weakness of the human nature, she gives not one but two chances for redemption.
Personally, I obeyed the 2nd call, closed the book and intended to not reading it further. Personally, I failed, the cheap curiosity taking over my previous act of honor. Just like anyone else in Nothomb’s book, I couldn’t resist watching.
Rest some of the questions raised by the form:
Can this really happen? (Of course it can – it already did!)
Yes, but can it really happen today? Well, ask yourself the following questions:
1. If such a show exist, how many people will watch it? [“unfortunately many will“]
2. In our “participation age”, with all its technological mediums of mass collaboration and of induced transparency – how many will actively participate in the executions by sending SMSes, or by Twittering their candidates for the daily death selections? [Many will. Some others will think about it, but will refrain from actively pushing the voting buttons]
But wait! There’s no need to actively push the buttons any longer! They no longer need your vote; they can do with your twittered thought! All you need is to think the alpha-numeric IDs of your candidates and your thought will be automatically encoded then transmitted into the show’s Twitter channel.
That’s a great solution, for after all even God blames no one for just thinking!
Acide sulfurique (Sulphuric Acid) by Amélie Nothomb