A strange little book, recounting Nothomb's years, aged 5 to 8, living in a diplomatic compound in China in the 1970s. She assures us it's true in an afterword, but even allowing for the benefit of hindsight when adding facts and attributing thoughts to her younger self, some of the things she got up to seem implausible for one so young. She even says "I will never surpass my analytical achievements as a five-year-old", although that is partly in jest because she goes on to explain her early conclusion on leaving Japan and arriving in Peking that "a Communist country is one in which there are electric fans" rather than air conditioning.
It's written in a slightly breathless, and very self-centred way, which is apt, and yet it rarely rings quite true. "The universe exists so that I can exist", she lists various disparate things and adds "none of this was superficial since it all existed in relation to my existence". Yes, five-year-olds think the world revolves around them, but this extrapolation just sounds daft to me.
Nothomb cycles round Peking on her own(!) on a bike she believes to be a horse. She is involved in ruthless gang warfare in the compound and falls in love with an uninterested (and uninteresting) but beautiful girl. That's it. But the gang warfare is a major feature, and really quite shocking: shocking in terms of what it involved, and even more shocking that it continued so long without parents or teachers intervening. "No one on this earth is indispensable, except the enemy". Chilling. Then a lighthearted justification: "Out parents' job was to reduce international tension as much as possible. Whereas we did just the opposite. (Go have children yourself, and see where it gets you.)"
I read this straight after JG Ballard's memoirs (http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/339229978), including his time in a Shanghai internment camp, and there are some similarities. Like him, "It was in the prison-like ghetto of San Li Tun that I discovered freedom" and "Adults can give their children no finer gift than to forget about them".
There are a few good observations about China and the Chinese - and how others react. She acknowledges the pull China has on many people, "China is like a skillful courtesan who manages to make her innumerable physical imperfections disappear without even hiding them, and who infatuates all her lovers."
The schooling in the compound is surprisingly bad, with dull, pointless tasks assigned by unqualified teachers, but this does create a good analogy. "I have never set foot in a Ministry of Culture, but when I try to imagine one I am transported to that class in the City of Electric Fans, with its ten peelers of potatoes, ten painters improvising blobs on paper, nineteen intellectuals without any perceivable function, and a guru writing a noble collective story all by himself."
I was also amused that the Chinese government wouldn't tell foreign diplomats the names of ministers, so the diplomats were "reduced to addressing fictitious, unnamed ministers - an interesting exercise that required a strong capacity for abstraction and an admirable dose of speculative audacity. One thinks of Stendhal's prayer: 'Oh God, if you exist, have pity on my soul, if I have one.'"
Nothomb's first three years, in Japan, are described in The Character of Rain, which I didn't much like: http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/346830153.