Amélie Nothomb: Ni d’Ève Ni d’Adam (Tokyo Fiancée)
Another story from Amélie Nothomb about her time in Japan. As we have seen from her other books, she is the daughter of a Belgian diplomat and, as a result, spent the first five years of her life in Japan, where she learnt some Japanese. After living in various countries as her father’s career took him round the world, she returned to Belgium to study. After that she again returned to Japan. This book is about that time.
The protagonist/narrator is a Belgian woman called Amélie. She is in Japan to earn money teaching French. She has put up a notice in a supermarket offering her services as a French teacher and the book opens with a phone call she receives from a potential student. They meet in a café. Despite the fact that she is not the only Westerner in the café, he easily recognises her. He naturally starts off speaking to her in English. She tells him that they can no longer speak English. This will be a theme throughout the book, as the Japanese, being unfamiliar with both Belgium and the French language assume she can speak English, something she resents. She speaks to him in her five-year old child Japanese. Eventually, they switch to French – his is terrible – and she learns that he is studying French at the university and needs extra help. He comes from a rich family, his father owning a major jewellery school and it is expected that he will follow in his father’s footsteps. His name is Rinri. They chat and he pays her. The lessons continue and gradually they become closer. He invites her to his parents’ house. Clearly his parents do not approve of too close a relationship while his grandparents laugh at her. Eventually and inevitably, they become lovers and get engaged.
Much of the novel, as in her other novels set in Japan, is about Western-Japanese cultural differences and, in some cases, cultural clashes. Amélie, for example, loves traditional Japanese food. Rinri prefers spaghetti and eggs. She learns about Japanese teaching. She takes Japanese lessons. One day, the teacher screams at her. She does not know why. After the lesson, she goes to him and ask him what she did wrong. You do not ask the Sensei questions is his reply. This, she feels, explains why the Japanese do not learn foreign languages well. He takes her to Hakone and she wonders why. It is certainly charming but why did he feel the need to take her? The answer, she feels, is that the Japanese do things because that is the thing to do. One day, when she is staying with him at his parents’ house while they are away, he goes out shopping and returns after two hours with just three pieces of ginger. What had he been doing all this time? Was he really part of the Yakuza? But, eventually, she comes to the conclusion that it really takes two hours to find the right ginger.
While these Western-Japanese culture clashes are a great part of the charm of the novel, there is also the character of Amélie who, herself, has a quirky charm. She wonders about her feelings for him? Is it love? No it is not. It is koi which means something like taste. In other words she has a taste for him. Unmarried couples call one another their koibito, being too embarrassed to use words like lover. Her ruminations on Hiroshima, particularly in the light of Hiroshima Mon Amour, are fascinating. And we also learn about her very close relationship to her sister. Indeed, his sister and her sister both meet and all they can say of the other sister, to the horror of their respective siblings, is she is thin.
You generally know what you are getting with Nothomb and we certainly get it here. But this novel, like most her others, is charming, witty, quirky and somewhat different. It is to those features that Nothomb owes her success and deservedly so.
First published in 2007 by Albin Michel
First published in English in 2006 by Faber and Faber