First Blood by Amelie Nothomb
At times appalling, always lively, uniformly loving, this account of the author’s father and his life experiences is a bright and interesting read, and the reader is left with a warm regard for both the subject and his biographer.
The prolific Amelie Nothomb tells the tale of her father’s experiences from the time of his birth to a traumatic incident in The Republic of the Congo in 1964. Patrick Nothomb was born into an aristocratic Belgian family but grew up bereft of a father and with a distant and uninvolved mother. He was raised by grandparents, one set conventional and one bizarrely unconventional. The two opposite families contributed to produce a young man whose dual experience suited him to become a diplomat. He was dispatched to The Congo during a time of revolution and upheaval.
The period of his youth chronicled here was wildly disparate, one set of relatives living a privileged life in the city with respectable morals, conventional tastes and a wholly establishment-oriented lifestyle. The other, while also of the aristocratic class were feral and artistic, given to a free-wheeling attitude towards child-raising and discipline. Patrick became enamored of his country family’s ways and learned to be tough and stoic about deprivations such as cold and hunger, traits he would never have learned from his city folk. Due to an uncontrollable reaction to the sight of blood (he fainted instantly) he was unfit for military service, medicine and many other possible career paths but evinced an interest in diplomacy, a way to serve without being involved in the sanguine aspects of politics and government.
Belgium at the time was still a colonial power and governed parts of Africa, whence he was sent to represent the country’s interests. When rebels overthrew the sitting officials and took all the white residents hostage, Patrick stepped forward, courageously, to negotiate, palaver and delay the inevitable bloodbath promised by the upheaval. The book opens with a scene where he is standing before a firing squad on the brink of being executed prior to the arrival of Belgian troops to suppress the rebellion.
The narrative is simultaneously loving and accusatory, often humorous, always interesting, the narrative moves quickly (the book is short and is a quick read) and the reader is left with an admiration for the author’s progenitor and an appreciation of her feelings for him. Few of us have such dramatic family stories to tell.