I personally have arrived late to feast at Amélie Nothomb's table. Here follow the thoughts of an individual who has encountered a new literary phenomenon ! For a more conventional review I recommend Mary Whipple's on this site.
At one level this short autobiographical novel is about an affair that takes place in Tokyo between a young part-time teacher, herself a student in Japan learning Japanese, and a young Japanese learning French. But at another it may be appreciated as the ultimate escapist literature. One must suspend one's everyday assumptions and go with the counter-flow, so to speak. It is pointless to try and hold onto a normal vision of reality. Every experience becomes enhanced, for better or for worse. To read Nothomb is to envisage trying to swim against the tide or to make the perfect mayonnaise in the dark ! It is a mind expanding experience, not without the risk of causing the intrepid reader a few nightmares subsequently. In other words I found it highly stimulating in a rather Gothic manner and would strongly recommend trying it. It must be less addictive and less noxious than cocaine !
An addendum about the title which is boringly self-explanatory in English. In French it is called "Ni d'Eve, ni d'Adam" named after a particularly forgettable film directed by Jean Paul Giveyrac and released in 1997. It must have appealed to Nothomb because it can vaguely be translated as "Nobody's Child" - which turns out to be far more revealing about the author of this book.
This is a lovely little book, full of charm, and humour. One gathers that it is largely autobiographical. A simple tale of a Belgian-born, young woman's exploration of her Japanese roots and her short love-affair with a young Japanese man who answered her advertisement offering French-language lessons. I learned quite a bit about Japanese customs and attitudes through her story. The authors love of Japanese mountains and countryside shine through the book and provide some of the most lyrical writing in the book.
Acclaimed Belgian author Amelie Nothomb reminisces in this novel about her life in Japan in 1989. She was twenty-one that year, a recent college graduate seeking her emotional roots, and she had just returned to Japan, where she was born and lived with her diplomat parents for the first five years of her life. To earn some money while she studies business, she posts an advertisement offering language classes in French. She is immediately hired by Rinri, a twenty-year-old college student whose French is at the beginner level, despite several years of teaching by Japanese teachers. Before long, their teacher-student relationship becomes more intimate, and Amelie is learning more about Japanese culture than she ever expected.
Perceptively analyzing the communication problems faced by Amelie and Rinri because of their different cultures, the novel warmly and humorously explores their relationship, never taking the differences too seriously despite the confusions that sometime arise. When she meets some of his friends whom she has not met before, she knows that "To meet someone and fail to talk about the weather is to betray a lack of manners," yet she persists in trying to get to know his friends better and to find a subject of common interest for conversation, even though she may be intrusive. She is embarrassed and surprised when he insists on paying her teaching fee when they have been out socializing with his friends, yet Amelie genuinely likes Rinri, and he makes her happy.
As one calendar year passes in the lives of these two young characters, the author incorporates other aspects of the culture into the novel--the educational system with its exams for pre-school, its hierarchy of colleges from the most elite to "train station universities," and its lax requirements regarding attendance and assignments. Friendships and leisure activities are also explored, and Amelie and Rinri meet members of each other's families. She becomes a fan of quail eggs and sea urchins; he likes salami with mayonnaise. When Rinri proposes marriage, Amelie encounters a serious linguistic problem different from anything she has ever before experienced.
Written as a memoir, the novel contains important observations about the cultural misunderstandings that sometimes arise between even the most committed lovers. Their relationship itself becomes the plot, and the author is especially careful to avoid making value judgments about either culture as she explores issues of the heart. Rinri, a well developed character, evokes sympathy, though the author offers fewer insights into her own behavior. Easy to read and perceptive in its insights into the cultural aspects of love, Tokyo Fiancee is an honest portrait of a relationship between two lovers in their early twenties--one Belgian and one Japanese--both of whom find they have much to learn. n Mary Whipple
If you have enjoyed Fear and Trembling you will also enjoy Tokyo Fiancee. It is a companion piece dealing with the "author's" experience over two years of going out with a Japanese boyfried.
The first half of the book is particularly enjoyable as the author comes to grips with the customs of the japanese in life and love (and vice versa) - it's light and charming, consistently surprising, and also thought-provoking.
Later, discussions of being lost alone on a snow covered mountain, and being eaten by Japanese mosquitos, though fine (and also thought-provoking - it's in the telling!) in their own right, seem something of a diversion from the main theme of the novel. Above all, though, the central paradox is of a relationship on which the author does not wish to confer permanency, which in a sense she does not wish to end, and from which she gains enjoyment at all times...but somehow not enough. I'd rather she reflected a bit more on "why is this not enough?"
I'm very grateful, though, for what IS here. And I'd strongly recommend this.
I was told by a French tutor that as I was interested in Japanese culture that this book would be good to read if I could find a English version. Thankfully it had been translated and I haven't regreted getting this. The 2 cultures coming together make for a funny, weird and romantic story that instantly grabs your attention. A must but for anyone.