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Nothomb laughs a great deal in her memoir/novel, infectiously. But helplessness is not the theme. Her protagonist-self is a woman who believes she can do anything, whose alter ego is Zarathustra, who climbs mountains at Mach speed and conquers Japanese language and culture with kooky aplomb.
You have to love her openness about her prejudices and shortcomings, as when she meets an American woman: ". . . though I despised simplistic anti-Americanism, I thought that to forbid myself from hating this girl because she was American would in fact constitute an unspeakable form of simplistic anti-Americanism: I indulged, therefore, in pure and simple loathing."
True, in Japan (where Nothomb was born) she gets engaged against her will and must break it off and return to Belgium. Yet this is hardly tragic - it was all a mistake from the start.
One of the smartest, happiest, most hopeful passages I've read recently is Nothomb's graceful discussion of what she felt for her Japanese boyfriend, Rinri. She decides it's not ai (love) but koikoi is wonderful: "I was always overjoyed to see him. I felt friendship for him, and tenderness. But when he wasn't there, I did not miss him." And that, she thinks, is fabulous: "koi was ravishing, so light, fluid, fresh and devoid of seriousness. Koi was elegant, playful, funny, civilized." (finding someone to your liking). While love is destructive,
I'm excited about encountering Nothomb. She finds everything fascinating, and she takes us along an electric current of perception.
by John Timpane