Life Form

Amélie Nothomb

Illustration by Michela Caputo

That morning I received a new sort of letter:

Baghdad, December 18, 2008

Dear Amélie Nothomb,

I'm a private in the US Army, my name is Melvin Mapple, you can call me Mel. I've been posted in Baghdad ever since the beginning of this fucking war, over six years ago. I'm writing to you because I am as down as a dog. I need some understanding and I know that if anyone can understand me, you can.

Please answer. I hope to hear from you soon.

Melvin Mapple

At first I thought this was some sort of hoax. Even if Melvin Mapple did exist, what right did he have to speak to me like that? Wasn't there some sort of military censorship to prevent words like "fucking" from being used in conjunction with "war"?

I took a closer look at the letter. If it was a fake, it was a remarkably good one. The stamp was American, the postmark Iraqi. The most authentic thing about it was the handwriting, that basic American script, simple, stereotypical, that I had noticed so often on my visits to the United States. And the tone of the letter, so direct, indisputably legitimate.

When I was no longer in doubt as to the authenticity of the missive, I was struck by what was the most incredible aspect of the message: while there might be nothing surprising about the fact that an American soldier, caught up in the war right from the start, said he was "as down as a dog," it was completely mind-boggling that he would write to me about it.

How had he come to hear of me? A few of my novels, five years or so ago, had been translated into English and garnered a, shall we say, rather intimate readership. As for soldiers, Belgian and French ones had written to me, there was nothing surprising about that; more often than not they were asking for a photograph with a dedication. But a private in the US Army, based in Iraq? That was beyond me.

Did he know who I was? Other than the fact that my publisher's address was spelled correctly on the envelope, there was no proof that he did. "I need some understanding and I know that if anyone can understand me, you can." How could he be so sure that I would understand him? Assuming he had read my books, were they any sort of solid proof of human compassion and understanding? I could not help but be puzzled by Melvin Mapple's choice of wartime pen pal.

Moreover, did I really want to have him confide in me? There were already so many people who wrote to me at great length about their troubles. My capacity for putting up with other people's pain was fit to burst. What's more, the suffering of an American soldier would take up a lot of room. Did I have that sort of space? No.

Melvin Mapple must have been in need of a shrink. That's not my job. I would not be doing him any favors by allowing him to confide in me, because he'd think he no longer needed the kind of therapy that six years of war surely warranted.

But not to reply at all would have been a low-down rotten thing to do. I decided on a compromise: I autographed some dedicated copies of my books that had been translated into English to the soldier, put them in a parcel, and sent them off. That way I felt like I'd done my duty by this US Army underling, and my conscience was at ease.

Some time later it occurred to me that the lack of censorship might be explained by Barack Obama's recent election to the presidency; although it was true he wouldn't be taking office for at least another month, this upheaval must already be having a certain impact. Obama had been a constant, vocal opponent to the war, and had clearly stated that in the event of a Democratic victory he would bring the troops home. I had a vision of Melvin Mapple's imminent return to his native land: in my dreams he would return to his cozy farm surrounded by cornfields, and his parents would be standing there with their arms spread wide. This thought was enough to calm me altogether. And as he would surely take my signed books home with him, I would have done my bit, however indirectly, to promote reading in the Corn Belt.

Not even two weeks had gone by when I received Private Mapple's reply:

Baghdad, January 1, 2009

Dear Amélie Nothomb,

Thank you for your novels. What do you want me to do with them?

Happy New Year,

Melvin Mapple

I thought this was a bit much. Slightly annoyed, I wrote back right away:

Paris, January 6, 2009

Dear Melvin Mapple,

I don't know. Perhaps you can use them to balance a piece of furniture or raise up a chair leg. Or give them to a friend who has just learned how to read. Thank you for your new year's wishes. Same to you.

Amélie Nothomb

I mailed the note, fulminating against my stupidity. How else had I expected a soldier to react?

He wrote back right away:

Baghdad, January 14, 2009

Dear Amélie Nothomb,

Sorry, I must not have made myself very clear. What I meant was, if I wrote to you it was because I have already read your books, all of the ones in English. I didn't want to bother you with that, that's why I didn't mention them; it went without saying. But I'm glad to have the extra copies, all signed on top of it. I can lend them to my buddies. Sorry to have inconvenienced you.


Melvin Mapple

My eyebrows shot up. This guy had read all my books, and was establishing a relationship of cause and effect between that event and the fact he was writing to me. This plunged me deep into an abyss of thought. I tried to understand what, in my novels, could have incited this soldier to write to me.

On the other hand, this event had transformed me into that ridiculously delighted individual: the author who discovers that someone has read their oeuvre. The fact that this someone was a private in the US Army was even more gratifying. It made me feel as if I were a universal writer. I felt a grotesque surge of pride. In a supremely contented disposition I composed the following epistle:

Paris, January 21, 2009

Dear Melvin Mapple,

I do apologize for the misunderstanding. I am genuinely touched that you have read all my books. Allow me to take this opportunity to send you my latest novel translated into English, Tokyo Fiancée, which has just been published in the US. The title annoys me, it sounds like a movie with Sandra Bullock, but the publisher assured me that Ni d'Ève ni d'Adam was not likely to find a better translation. From the 1st to the 14th of February I will be in your fine country to promote the book.

Today Barack Obama was inaugurated as president of the United States. It is a great day. I imagine you will be home soon and I am glad.

Best wishes,

Amélie Nothomb

translated from the French by Alison Anderson

Une forme de vie by Amélie Nothomb, © Editions Albin Michel - Paris, 2010
Life Form by Amélie Nothomb, © Europa Editions - New York, 2013