PUBLISHERS OF LITERARY FICTION SINCE 1983
'This is a novella that is greater than the sum of its parts – it is, of course, about more than just tattooing. There is a psychological cohesion to it that is all the more important when you are telling a story of what is, essentially, a descent into madness. And a journey into illness, too: there is some tricksy wordplay on “leukaemia” that left me wondering how on earth Mike Mitchell, the translator, managed it.“Hochet” is French for “rattle”; this is a good rattling, as in unsettling, story.'
Ink in the Blood is an innovative novel by one of France’s leading novelists and is certainly interesting.
The novel is narrated by an anonymous narcissistic 45 year old artist with a fascination with tattoos, despite not having any himself. He decides to take the inky leap when he befriends Dimitri, a gifted and almost mystic tattooist, opting for a Latin phrase vulnerant omnes, ultima necat (all the hours kill, the last one kills). The tattoo changes him into a markedly different character, insecure and needy, and causes intense fear when the first line of the tattoo fades, leaving only ultima necat (the last one kills) and threatening his life.
'I discovered two things: first, this book is one of a series produced by Deladus Euro Shorts to offer European literature that “can be read cover to cover on a Eurostar journey”; and second, that it is as easy to put down as a leaking superglue tube.
So what converted me from a prejudice against both its size and its subject? Well, being small, it is remarkably condensed. There’s not an unnecessary adjective, an ill-considered diversion or a unmerited description. But this potent monologue has an involving and fascinating plot and fruitful allusions to markings and rituals and taboos: at the most basic, “we all want to leave some trace”. And this thoughtful and clear young writer has a fund of epigrammatic phrases: marriage is “happiness decreed by contact”; the anonymous narrator decries “the whorish aspect of fashion”; and “people are never short of imagination when it’s a matter of being vulgar’.
I still wonder about it being suitable for a Eurostar journey, though. Apart from the pain of discarding a book of any size, Ink In The Blood is so tightly written, you’ll probably want to re-read it on your way back. I generously offered to test this theory empirically, but when I mentioned possibly expensing a cross-Channel trip, the editor said I could have a similar experience if I took the Underground to Amersham and back.'
The never named narrator of this novella is an artist who makes designs for gifted tattooist Dimitri, but has never actually had one done for himself. When he finally takes the plunge it is because he sees a Latin phrase that takes his fancy: vulnerant omnes, ultima necat, meaning 'all the hours wound, the last one kills'. He has this memento mori in the form of a cross placed on his solar plexus, one of the most painful places on the human body to be tattooed, but afterwards finds that his feelings about himself and his attitude to women are changing. Coincidental with this transformation the first two words of the phrase fade and ultimately disappear from his flesh, leaving only the threat implicit in the second clause.
Hochet gives us a lot of background detail about tattooing, its history and use as a means of self-expression, a badge of status and insignia of achievement, with our hero’s meditations on the subject woven throughout the narrative, but in some ways the matter is only incidental to the real thrust of the story. The narrator is morbidly inclined, as witness his choice of phrase for his tattoo, and it is his mind-set that is the true subject of Hochet’s work. Ultimately what we have is a descent into madness. There is only the narrator’s word that the tattoo is fading; he never seeks independent verification. And coincidental with all this, there are hints of a blood related illness that could prove fatal, so that the fading tattoo might simply be the outward manifestation of an awareness that his own time is fast running out, whether that is true or not.
In other areas the narrator adjusts his attitudes. He starts to develop a kind of paranoia regarding Dimitri, who he no longer regards as a friend and mentor. He develops an unrequited attachment to a technician at the medical centre where his blood is being tested, and he reaches out to a woman in his past with whom he may have had a child. Underlying all this there seems to be an awareness that he has failed to make that most human of all bonds, a lasting relationship, and he is now regretting the mistakes of his past while at the same time doomed to repeat them through his inability to connect with others at any level beyond the superficial. He is not an appealing character, and Hochet demonstrates this with her keen observations and the judicious use of words when the narrator is expressing his inner life, but at the same time she gives him enthusiasms that almost endear the man to us. Ink in the Blood is an intriguing and enigmatic book, one that will probably require more than one reading to get the full benefit. I enjoyed it chiefly as a portrait of a contradictory and often abrasive personality, rather than for the story, with the outré elements simply the embodiment of what’s going on elsewhere in the narrator’s life.