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March 21, 2009

"Tokyo Fiancée" by Amelie Nothomb (Book review)

It is a mystery why publishers can't keep their hands off titles in translation. The English title of this book, the rather bland Tokyo Fiancée is in the original French Ni d'Ève Ni d'Adam, "Neither of Eve, nor of Adam" as used in the expression "Ne connaitre ni d'Ève Ni d'Adam" which means "to be totally in the dark about something."

The author must be talking about the intercultural misunderstandings that are central to this highly funny and engaging novel.

The author Amelie Nothomb was born in Japan of Belgian parents - her father served as consul and later ambassador. After a paradisaical five years in Japan as a small child (described in The Character of Rain, another book with a different title in English) duty calls Amelie's father to China, and later Belgium. It is only after her university study that as a young woman she again returns to Japan, full of hope to renew the acquaintance with the country of which she has such beautiful memories. How the hope of a career at one of Japan's foremost companies was crushed, is described in an earlier novel, Fear and Trembling.

Tokyo Fiancée takes place mostly before she enters corporate life, when she is studying Japanese in Tokyo for a year. "The most efficient way to study Japanese, it seemed, would be to teach French" the protagonist of the novel, Amelie correctly observes. Her first and only pupil is a nice young man trying not so hard to study French, Rinri. It is 1989, the height of the Bubble Period and they meet in an upscale cafe in Omotesando. Rinri, it appears, has rich parents, a white Mercedes and for the rest just floats through life, "playing" as he calls it ("Playing what?" asks Amelie, until a friend tells her that the Japanese asobu is a description for the state of not being engaged in work or study.)

Although Amelie and Rinri become friends and lovers, this is not a love story: the temperature is tepid at most, and the relationship is hampered by intercultural misunderstandings - as the later office work would be.

A funny misunderstanding also occurs in her Japanese class, where she has the habit of raising her hand and asking the teacher all kinds of questions, almost causing heart attacks:
"One must not ask questions of the Sensei," scolded the teacher.
"But-if I do not understand?"
"You understand!"
I now knew why language instruction in Japan was so wobbly.
It is indeed true that children in Japanese schools are sometimes taught not to ask questions.

But back to the relationship of Amelie and Rinri. It struck me how large the role played by food is in their friendship. When at the beginning of the story Rinri invites her to dinner at the home of a friend, he cooks okonomiyaki (with Hiroshima sauce), the favorite dish of Amelie who spent her early youth in the Kansai.
"The aroma of cabbage, shrimp and ginger sizzling together carried me sixteen years into the past, to the era when my gentle governess Nishio-san would concoct the same treat for me, and which I have not tasted since."
Prey to a deep emotion, Amelie looses her veneer of civilization and devours her okonomiyaki, "with eyes glazed over, and uttering faint little cries of delight."

Other dishes also mark her amorous relation with Rinri. At Rinri's place, both indulge themselves with Swiss-cheese fondue, made in a sort of high-tech contraption that gives the cheese the taste of molten plastic. At a certain moment Amelie playfully dips her hands into the fondue so that a thick layer of fake cheese gives her gloves. As she can't wash her yellow mittens off, she tries to scrape the cheese away with a kitchen knife, cutting her palm. "The boy" (as she class Rinri) then gets down on his knees and delicately uses his teeth to scrape the polystyrene from Amelie's hands.
"Never in my life had I been so confounded by gallantry. [...] The episode had been a catharsis for him. He took me in his arms and kept me there."
This could well have heralded the start of a deeper relation, but Amelie feels only "koi" and no "ai" for Rinri. When they climb Mt Fuji together she races to the top, while he follows as a panting wreck, something which seems symbolical of their relationship.

Another food event seals the beginning of the end of their relation. On a winter trip to the island of Sado, they have little octopuses for dinner, kept alive until the final moment so that they are still as fresh as possible.
"It would be impolite to refuse the dish. [...] I shoved it into my mouth and tried to plant my teeth into it. Then the most dreadful thing happened: the octopus's nerves, still alive, fastened into my tongue with all its tentacles. And would not let go. I was screaming as loudly as you can scream when you have had your tongue swallowed whole by an octopus. I tried to detach the beast with my fingers: impossible, the suction cups were firmly stuck."
Later that dinner, Rinri proposes marriage. Futile, of course, although Amelie doesn't not want to hurt his feelings and for many months puts off giving a clear answer. But the sticky octopus was an unfortunate prelude - needless to say that there is no happy marriage in their future.