Sulphuric Acid [2005/2007] – ★★★★
This book is by a Belgian author Amélie Nothomb, who was born in Japan, but now resides in Paris. Translated from the French by Shaun Whiteside, Sulphuric Acid is a short novella which quite shockingly and darkly satirises our obsession with TV, in particular with reality television, and our idolisation of celebrities. Probably taking some inspiration from Koushun Takami’s Battle Royale (1999), Sulphuric Acid is a dystopia-set story in which millions of people tune in every night for a TV programme called Concentration, which recreates a Nazi-style concentration camp with real participants. People in this programme take either the roles of guards or prisoners, with cameras catching their every move. Nothomb packs a lot of ideas into her novella of just over 120 pages, and she is very interested to explore human responses to some unthinkable situations, as we follow the main characters – a beautiful young woman Pannonique, one of the prisoners, and sadistic Zdena, one of the guards.
In this story, a TV programme Concentration knows no boundaries when it comes to “entertaining” its audience as it puts its “participants” through a real concentration camp simulation with real suffering and death experienced by many. People in this story were taken from streets and assigned randomly as prisoners, while other people, such as capo Zdena, went through tests and interviews to be assigned as guards. Those who think the premise is far-fetched may just recall gladiator battles in the Roman Empire or the Stanford Prison Experiment – both were no fiction. Philip Zimbardo conducted the Prison Experiment among college students in 1971, where people were assigned the roles of prisoners and guards randomly, and the alleged conclusion was that people quickly assume their assigned roles under one unquestionable authority, and some people suffered extreme psychological torture inflicted by assigned “guards” who had the order to command “prisoners” and “punish” them harshly for any disobedience (see also the related Milgram experiment).
However, Sulphuric Acid has another dimension to it, since the camp in the story is filled with video cameras and audiences at home can watch events happening within the prison walls. In this way, the author tries to demonstrate the consequences of a society’s boundless obsession with reality television and we get to understand the true meaning of the word “telegenic”. The issue is very topical nowadays. The popularity of Dutch-originated Big Brother, and also of the Survival programme and talk shows such as British Jeremy Kyle, become a bit questionable when people view episodes involving other people being verbally abused so that they are “entertained” (otherwise, the episodes are “boring”). In May 2019, a contestant on the British Jeremy Kyle Show – Steve Dymond – committed suicide after the filming of his episode on the show, and the cause of his demise was proved to be directly linked to his appearance on the show. Previous Love Island reality show contestants Mike Thalassitis and Sophie Gradon also took their own lives in 2019 and 2018 respectively, and not long after appearing on the show. Instead of feeling sympathy and compassion for another human being, some participants on these shows are designated as “idiots” and put to shame, with audiences supposedly taking pleasure in dissecting other people’s vulnerabilities and private affairs. The presence of the screen also makes the complicity of the audience non-existent.
Going back to the book, on this background of the Concentration TV programme, we find beautiful, intelligent and courageous Pannonique, previously a student of palaeontology, who stoically endures her experience of being a prisoner in the camp. She somehow gets the harshest treatment from the guards and the reasons are clear: “[The camera] knew that it was in the interests of Concentration to display to the maximum the beauty of that tormented humanity. So it was that it quickly chose Pannonique” [Amélie Nothomb, 2005/07: 11]. We also get to know one of the ruthless guards – Capo Zdena – as well as her growing obsession with Pannonique. “What’s normality? What are good and evil? It’s all cultural”, according to Zdena [Nothomb, 2005/07: 8]. In these circumstances (harsh labour, no freedom and daily beatings), even small actions signalling defiance are big acts of courage. Also, it seems that a society in the book is such that the presence of a camera or a full report of despicable events somehow makes the actions of the organisers of the programme justifiable.
The curious element of the novella is that we discover the real horror of the programme – what the prisoners have to endure at the camp – in an indirect manner, as though, like the audience watching this programme, what is important is the camera’s point of view and the “characters”, and not the gruesome actions people are subjected to or the abhorrent nature of the programme itself. Perhaps even the not-so-fully-fledged characters are a point of this story since the facelessness of reality television makes it even more “acceptable” in the eyes of many. Amélie Nothomb also makes it clear that “knowledge is power”, and makes a particular emphasis on one’s name being very important to one’s identity and self-worth. The thesis here is that names are important to human beings, and they make us valuable individuals in our eyes and in the eyes of others – “not for nothing do human beings bear names rather than numbers: the first name is the key to the personality. It is the delicate click of the lock when you want to open the door. It’s the metallic music that makes the gift possible” [Nothomb, 2005/07: 72]. All prisoners in the camp in the story are nameless and are assigned numbers (Pannonique is CKZ 114, and her friends are MDA 802 and EPJ 327); it becomes easier to mistreat them this way.
Amélie Nothomb’s factual and “economical” writing suits her story well and some of her statements are thought-provoking: “when a name is a rampant and its impregnability intoxicates, it’s called love” [Nothomb, 2005/07: 40] and “it is when his absence is most glaring that God is most necessary” [Nothomb, 2005/07: 44]. On the negative side, I sometimes find novellas and short stories rather underwhelming (The Yellow Wallpaper, I Have the Right to Destroy Myself), and Sulphuric Acid also felt this way for me. The novella also has a more or less predictable ending.
Amélie Nothomb has been called “a charming little monster” (Financial Times) and for a good reason – Sulphuric Acid is dark and unsettling in its content, but, despite its short length, it still packs a punch and is rather thought-provoking. Perhaps, given the rising popularity of reality television in this and last decades, as well as the recent questions asked about the ethics (lack of them) behind them, we can only too well now imagine what might be the extreme case of human interest to observe the problems and pain of others. In this sense, Sulphuric Acid is one dystopian novella that sends out a powerful warning about humans’ relentless and obsessive pursuit of screen thrills and their insatiable curiosity about others that can result in them forgetting the most basic principles of humanity.