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Complete Review: "A pleasant and amusing tale."

Date: Dec 3 2008

   Tokyo Fiancée is another of Nothomb's autobiographical novel, as she again revisits her time in Japan, when she was in her early twenties. There is some overlap with Fear and Trembling, but while that novel focussed practically entirely on her workplace-life, this one almost completely ignores that and focusses much more on her general experience of living in Japan.
       Tokyo Fiancée begins before the period covered in Fear and Trembling, as she describes returning to Japan, which she had last seen as a small child (traumatically ripped from it and finding herself then in Beijing, as recounted in Loving Sabotage). The year of Yumimoto (the company she worked for) and Fear and Trembling was 1990, but only a small section of this account is devoted to that period; most of Tokyo Fiancée is set in 1989. (Almost -- but not quite -- from the very start, Nothomb is very specific about dates, precisely situating herself, as if it were essential to fix and remember the chronology, from: "30 janvier 1989. Mon dixième jour au Japon en tant qu'adulte" to tracing exactly how far she had come: "Le 10 janvier 1991, j'étais une dame-pipi qui venait de rendre son tablier. Le 9 décembre 1996, j'étais un écrivain qui venait répondre aux questions des journalistes.")
       The novel focusses on her relationship with a Japanese student, Rinri, who answers her ad for French lessons. East meets West, with the double-confusion of languages (each trying to master that of the other), and it turns into an affair of sorts. They become involved -- indeed, eventually they are engaged -- but it's not much of a love story. Much of the action centres around only the two of them, and their interaction, but tellingly there's practically no mention of any sort of intimacy: she'll note they share a bed, for example (his parents', at one point), but that's about the extent of it. (The only time she really conveys passion about another person is is when she writes of her sister, Juliette. who comes for a visit ("Je crus mourir de joie en la retrouvant", she says -- convincingly).)
       It's not as if Rinri and Amélie personify the yin and yang of East and West, but rather that Rinri offers her a means of better understanding Japan and the Japanese. She comes back to the country with a very warped view (recall also The Character of Rain) of Japan and her place in it, and even if she is now adult and more rational, she's far from the typical visiting Westerner. She has difficulties with the language, but can navigate better than most (and certainly has achieved reasonable fluency after a while); interestingly, she notes that while in all the other languages she's learnt -- English, Dutch, German, Italian -- her passive knowledge of the language was always, as is to be expected, greater than her active knowledge, with Japanese she found the opposite is the case.
       Cultural differences remain: among the amusing scenes is her description of going to see Stephen Frear's film version of Dangerous Liaisons with Rinri -- and how he weeps in sympathy for that poor woman ... Madame de Tourvel.
       Rinri is an odd sort of suitor. The son of a wealthy family (and with a knock-out of a sister), he's constantly rolling up in his white Mercedes, taking Amélie off to a variety of places, trying to make an impression yet not really wooing in her in any usual romantic sense. She's fond of him, but doesn't seem to love him -- "j'aimais bien Rinri", she says, which doesn't sound very passionate -- and doesn't turn down his offer of marriage immediately because doing so would mean a break and she doesn't want to do without his "compagnie charmante".
       That she's both a singular and isolated soul, happiest in a world of her own making, is made clear enough along the way. Rinri takes her to climb Mount Fuji, and she gallops on ahead of him; she also rushes down ahead of him (in record-breaking time, recounting here one of the stories that is Nothomb-lore, her claim to the fastest-ever descent of Fuji). A second mountain climbing expedition sees her venture off alone -- and it's here she experiences more than in all her time with Rinri, finding sublime perfection: "Ces six heures sont les plus belles de ma vie." In the most effective scene in the book she answers the phone when she returns home, and doesn't even recognise Rinri's voice; enough said.
       There's little to be said about 1990, the year spent in her 'double-life' -- a work-slave during the day, and a fiancée at night. It is a phase and something to get through; she plans her departure (and escape), but only tells Rinri off-hand, the day before she leaves (and, again, she's very specific about dates: "Le 9 janvier 1991" is when she tells him). Returning to Belgium (and a true beloved, her sister) is an abrupt next step, and Amélie emphasises that all this also got her to this, the most significant (and perhaps first true) adult decision: "Le 14 janvier 1991, je commençai à écrire un roman qui s'intitulait Hygiène de l'assassin".
       So Tokyo Fiancée recounts a chapter in the writer's life, filling in some of the gaps from previous novels and revealing more about Nothomb. But even on its own, it's a pleasant and amusing tale, a much softer side of Japan shown than that in Fear and Trembling. Her enthusiasm for okonomiyaki (a type of ... let's say omelette) and the pleasures of the kotatsu (a table with a heater underneath, to warm the legs) make for an affectionate picture of Japan, but it's really only in nature that she get's carried away (with herself, too). There are some nice incidental character-studies, and some good observations, but for the most part it's a surprisingly easy-going Nothomb novel, without the range of emotions found in most of them.
       Rinri hardly comes across as her lover, which is perhaps the oddest part of the book. He's a central figure, but -- like in real life ? -- she hardly seems to know what to do with him, which also gives the novel a slightly odd feel.
       Nothing special, but enjoyable enough.