Amelie Nothomb, a Francophone Belgian now living in Paris, was born in Kobe to diplomat parents. The popular French-language novelist has published 24 books during the past 16 years, ten of which have been translated into English. She’s also a winner of the French Academy’s Grand Prix for the Novel.
Tokyo Fiancée, a translation of Nothomb’s 2007 autobiographical novel Ni d’Eve, ni d’Adam, is a straightforward account of a love affair between a 21-year-old Belgian girl and a Japanese university student named Rinri. To set the scene, the first-person narrator (who shares her first name with author) returns to Japan in 1989 after an absence of 16 years. The book’s opening sentence—“The most efficient way to learn Japanese, it seemed, would be to teach French”—efficiently serves to introduce Rinri, who calls to arrange a sample lesson in an Omotesando café.
Nothomb skillfully uses the pair’s language exchange and intercultural relationship to offer deep insights into, and make sharp comments on, Japanese traditional culture and Bubble Era society. Rinri has no idea where Belgium is, or even that it is a country and not simply part of France.
Amelie also experiences frustration in her Japanese language class. After being shouted at by the instructor for raising her hand, she stops by after the lesson to apologize and “to determine the nature of my crime”:
“One must not ask questions of the Sensei,” scolded the teacher.
“But—if I do not understand?”
I now knew why language instruction in Japan is
Eventually, Rinri becomes Amelie’s lover, and it is through her responses to the eccentricities of his courtship that the novel delves into the nuances of Japanese culture. Coming from a wealthy family, Rinri lives in a mansion (not a manshon) in Den-en-Chofu and drives a white Mercedes. He takes Amelie on excursions to such stereotypical locales as Hakone, Mt Fuji and Tokyo’s Komazawa Park. “More than any other country on earth,” she observes, “the Japanese did things because they were done.”
As Amelie and Rinri become more intimate, revelations about Rinri’s life and about Japanese society become more intense. One day, he tells her about the signal event of his childhood:
“When I was 5, like all other children, I took the tests to enter one of the best primary schools. If I passed, it meant that one day I could go to one of the best universities. I knew this at the age of five. But I didn’t pass.”
At this point, Rinri breaks down in tears, and Amelie takes him in her arms. Their relationship enters a new stage, but more importantly, Amelie reaches a new understanding about Japanese culture.
Just past the midpoint of the book, Nothomb creates a riveting climax that leads to a long dénouement. The scene takes place during the couple’s obligatory climbing of Mt Fuji, and is strikingly similar—both in theme and narrative structure—to Ray Smith and Japhy Ryder’s scaling of the Matterhorn in Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums. She skillfully climbs the mountain, watches the sunrise and descends, Zen-like, in record time, while Rinri struggles to the summit, sleeps through the sunrise and straggles, exhausted, to the base hours after Amelie. (This adventure foreshadows the fate of the romance and hints at why the book’s title is “Tokyo Fiancée” and not “Tokyo Bride.”)
While Nothomb uses the two-year romance as a plot device, her real strength is the ability to unravel the mysteries of Japanese behavior. Her commentary is sympathetic and sincere, rather than biased or judgmental, which allows the reader to identify with her struggles—or with Rinri’s, as the case may be.
Reviewed by Hillel Wright