Tokyo Fiancée, Amélie Nothomb (trans. Alison Anderson). Europa Editions. 152pp, $15.00.
Tokyo Fiancée is best-selling Belgian author Amélie Nothomb’s brief, detailed novel about two years she spent in Tokyo while in her early twenties. Ostensibly a story of unrequited love, it is also a love letter to Japanese culture, and a revealing—nearly confessional—self-portrait of the author as an ambitious young woman.
Those who have read Nothomb’s other novel about these two years in Tokyo, Fear and Trembling, will hardly recognize the Amélie that narrates Tokyo Fiancée. Although the chronology overlaps between the two autobiographical novels, and Nothomb makes directs reference to the other book, Tokyo Fiancée shows an exuberant woman with a fantastic sense of humor enjoying a light-hearted love affair—an experience that contrasts sharply with Amélie’s humiliating time in the corporate world described in Fear and Trembling. In both books, which are not memoirs per se, Amélie’s narration is meant to be an approximation of the truth, a novelization of remembered facts.
Structurally, the chronology of Tokyo Fiancée is as straightforward as a blade. It begins in January 1989, when Amélie arrives in Tokyo after 16 years away from the country and the language she grew up with for the first five years of her life. As she describes her love affair with a wealthy, young Japanese man named Rinri, the lithe plot darts ahead in very short chapters.
Nothomb gives small portraits of a few of the couple’s relatives, including some humorous scenes with Rinri’s grandparents, but much of the novel deals with whether or not Amélie is willing to fall for this unexpected suitor as much as he falls for her. Nothomb also portrays Japan as a garden of Eden filled with wonderful foods—such as kori (shaved ice) and okonomiyaki (savory pancake stuffed with ginger, shrimp, and cabbage, topped with bitter plum sauce)—as well as picturesque outdoor spots at Mt. Fuji and the Island of Sado.
The love affair begins with Amélie as the awkward Belgian tutor teaching French to Rinri, the same age as her, a stereotypically stoic Japanese student. Rinri is a challenge to the Amélie-narrator, a locked box she must pry open using her linguistic charm and her French-ness (her Belgian-ness being too confusing for most people to understand anyway). As she accomplishes this, Amélie gently imposes upon Rinri the fondness for Japan she recalls from her idyllic early childhood in Kansai province, where she was raised for five years by her “gentle governess Nishio-san” in the village of Shukugawa.
Subtly, Nothomb shows how Rinri becomes for Amélie an avenue back to the feelings of openness, adventure, and comfort she associates with those early years. As the courtship develops in earnest, they make customary visits to national shrines and parks and cook food at home. Amélie discovers that “tradition, in Japan, meant that couples for a day or for a lifetime had at their disposal an entire infrastructure guaranteed to forestall any insecurity about how to spend one’s time together.” In following this tradition, many chapters begin with Amélie waiting for her lover to appear on his white horse (an oft-mentioned Mercedes-Benz) to whisk her away on their next excursion. Rinri’s gallantry and Amélie’s adventurousness carry tones of a modern fable:
The next morning, the punctuality of the Mercedes was equaled only by its white sheen.
Rinri had changed. His profile as a driver was no longer as immobile and impassive. His silence deepened, with an interesting awkwardness.
“Where are we going?” I asked.
This reply would become classic Rinri: whether our destination was grandiose or merely trivial, my questions would never elicit anything other than “you’ll see.”
Youlsee was this boy’s Cytherea: a changeable place whose sole purpose was to provide direction for the car.
It’s an arrangement Amélie adores: “Youlsee was the best philosophy. Rinri and I had no idea what we were doing together or where we were headed. While pretending to be visiting places that were only relatively interesting, we were exploring each other with a kindly curiosity.”
The pair eventually live together, and in detailing the relationship Nothomb hints at but modestly avoids writing about their sex life. This discretion reveals how much Amélie resisted Rinri’s love—if she had been in love, there would be no need to resist writing about the natural expressions of it. But this rationalization is justified, as far as Amélie is concerned, since the couple is enjoying what the Japanese call koi, to like someone, as opposed to ai, which means to love.
Nothomb states that the novel is “a story about koi,” the limits of which attract Amélie since it allows her to operate without risking her emotions:
In modern Japanese, young couples who are not married qualify their partners as koibito. Visceral modesty banishes the word love. Unless it is by accident, or in a fit of delirious passion, this enormous word is not to be used, as it is reserved for literature and that sort of thing.
Rinri’s passion, on the other hand, is enflamed precisely because Amélie and her language represent to him a way to express what Japanese culture forbids:
The fact that Rinri’s declarations were directed to a French-speaking woman and could be uttered in either French or in Japanese surely had something to do with it: the French language, no doubt, represented a territory that was both prestigious and licentious, a place where one could indulge in one’s inadmissible feelings.
Amélie is most happy when she is alone hiking on a mountain, and the most joyous writing comes when Nothomb describes her time in the outdoors, literally sprinting up and down Mt. Fuji, and when she is lost after a blizzard atop Mt. Kumotori Yama. Due to what she calls “a megalomaniacal bent to my lyricism,” she even invokes Nietzsche’s superman to describe her physical stamina while hiking. The “exaltation” and “ecstasy” of these adventures contrasts with her time with Rinri, where she is bound by his love and its seriousness. In trying to capture the mixed feelings Amélie has for Rinri, Nothomb’s writing occasionally slips into purple prose, and a few plot aspects dealing with minor characters seem outlandish (for example, Rinri’s sister dates a gangster in Los Angeles), but these slips last no more than a paragraph or two.
In showing these early years of Amélie’s adult life, a time when she was making major decisions about her identity and life’s work, Nothomb shows how her habits as a writer were already developing: “[I] had already, at that time, begun to get up at four o’clock in the morning to write.” Nothomb credits the dull horror of working in the corporate world (a job she lands a year after meeting Rinri) for helping her overcome her fear of submitting her writing to publishers: “Before Japan, I’d never thought about writing seriously. Too strong was my dread of the humiliation I would no doubt undergo in the form of editorial rejection letters. But now, given the tenor of my everyday life, there was no humiliation on earth that could still affect me.” The results of her dedication are revealed at the end of the novel, when the story flashes ahead to show Amélie in 1996 after she has fled Japan, and is back in Tokyo on a book tour for her first novel, Hygiene de l’assassin.
Alison Anderson, who also translated Muriel Barbery’s bestseller, The Elegance of the Hedgehog, provides a smooth translation from the French, with very few hiccups, and a slight British lilt to some of the slang. Though it may be untranslatable, and it happens often enough with books in translation, the publisher’s choice of title, Tokyo Fiancée, does not reflect the original, Ni d’Adam ni d’Eve, a shortened version of the phrase, “Ne connaitre ni d’Adam, ni d’Eve.” Roughly, this means, “Didn’t know him from Adam (or Eve).” In French, the phrase’s meaning is extended to women as well as men—and this is the key to the original title’s reward. It implies not that Amélie didn’t get to know Rinri—he is fully presented as a sensitive, intelligent, and creative young man. The truth is that the original French title could be words from Rinri’s side of the story. If this interpretation is true, the original title could be seen as a bittersweet apology from Nothomb, a nod to the wistfulness that Amélie lacked when Rinri wooed her.
Although she could have married Rinri and enjoyed a comfortable life, Nothomb shows that by refusing a convenient marriage, Amélie became a successful, award-winning writer. Having created a more pleasing fate for herself, Nothomb gives thanks to the Amélie she was during those two years in Tokyo, partially crediting her eventual happiness to her youthful devotion to “always have something to flee from, in order to cultivate this wonderful sense of possibility.”
Matthew Jakubowski is a freelance writer and a member of the National Book Critics Circle. He lives in Philadelphia
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