Friday, May 29, 2009

Tokyo Fiancée by Amelie Nothomb

  • Paperback: 160 pages
  • Publisher: Europa Editions (December 30, 2008)

"From the age of three to eighteen, the Japanese study as though possessed. From the age of twenty-five until they retire, they work like maniacs. From the age of eighteen to the age of twenty-five, they are only too aware they have been granted a unique interval: this is their chance to blossom..."
Amelie Nothomb writing in "Tokyo Fiancée"

Nothomb writes this to explain the phenomenon of "train-station" universities in Japan. Train-station universities are as numerous (yes, you guessed it) train stations and most students visit campus just to meet up with friends or to model their latest outfits...academics is the last thing on their minds and because the syllabi at these universities are student-friendly, most everyone breezes through their courses.

The novel "Tokyo Fiancee" is filled with other such cultural tidbits about Japan and the Japanese, but that is not all you should be reading this for, it is also a tale of sweet but largely unrequieted love between the author, a Francophone Belgian, visiting Japan to refresh her Japanese language skills and to teach French to Japanese students and Rinri a young Japanese man, totally in love with the French language and by extension, anyone who spoke la Francaise. To Rinri, being able to express himself in French gave him license to indulge his inadmissible feelings of love...something he couldn't have done in Japanese or to a Japanese woman as it is impolite in Japanese society to talk of love. In Japan, love is the stuff of literature, not real life.

Amelie is completely charmed with Rinri and the sweet love and concern he shows for her, but when Rinri starts to press the issue of marriage Amelie gets uncomfortable and hastens to find a way out (and I thought it was mostly men that had trouble with with the "C-word"!) No wonder then, the publishers have described this as a contemporary love story, where the woman's love of independence trumps her desire to be loved and needed.

Amelie, in this sweet autobiographical novel, says what she experienced for Rinri can best be explained using the Japanese term, "Koi"which is understood as a relationship in which a couple likes one another enough to be intimate but one that does not come with the trappings of love - a relationship based on camaraderie and sexual desire rather than romance. Do we have the equivalent of "Koi" in the English language? I am curious to find out!

This is a wisp of a book, only 152 pages, but a very worthy read. Nothomb is a very entertaining writer with a mischievous sense of humor. She also skillfully uses the linguistic and cross-cultural misunderstandings between herself and Rinri to offer fun insights into Japanese traditional culture...the ending is exquisitely tender,I had tears in my eyes!

If you like "Tokyo Fiancee" you might also want to read Nothomb's "Fear and Trembling", about a sadistic coworker who instructs her in the rigid hierarchies of office life. "F & T" is drawn from Nothomb's time working at a large Japanese corporation.


Madeleine said...

Ah, yes...Amelie Nothomb, every August France waits for a new novel. She writes one every year and I enjoy them. I read almost all of them except the newer ones. have not read "TOKYO FIANCEE" yet.
Thank-you for this great review.

Wendy Tokunaga said...

Fear and Trembling was also made into a very interesting film.

Anonymous said...

I've read most of her books. Can't wait to read that one!

karmic said...

Hi Lotus, How are you? As someone without a lot of time to read these days, I find that I learn so much about new and interesting books from you reviews! And that has been the case this time around too.
Enjoyed reading this informative book review.
The regimented nature of the lives of Japanese reminded me to some extent of those of people in India. Not as much, but especially up to the point of getting a job no?
Interesting that phenomenon of train-station universities.
Also learned a lot more about Japanese culture from this post.
Interesting that Rinri's-Amelie's story was called a contemporary love story.
But I am not sure I understand "Koi" as defined. There are couples who like each other, there is camraderie and sexual desire and love does not enter the picture. Aren't they just affairs or flings?
Does the author indicate how she feels about her decision now?
Thank you for sharing your thoughts on the book with us. You always find neat books to read!

Danielle said...

This sounds great. I love these Europa editions--they're so nicely made. I have a few on my piles, and I'm wondering if I bought this one a while back and have already forgotten....must go now and see if it's handy to read!

Anonymous said...

I'm so glad I found your blog! No one else is reviewing these books!
That having been said... I miss Japan!! I want to read this book!!

Ankita said...

Excellent post! I really enjoyed reading it. I will be back for more!

Lexi said...

One English term for the "koi" relationship might be "friends with benefits." After reading this review, I think I need to read some Amelie Nothomb, stat!

Lotus Reads said...

@Madeleine ~ Wow, I knew Nothomb was a prolific writer, I just didn't know how prolific! I will join France in waiting for her new book next August...she has a new fan in me for sure!

@Wendy ~ Welcome and thanks so much for letting me know about the screen version of "Fear and Trembling"...does it have the same title as the book, I wonder? I am going to look for it.

@Kanmuri ~ This was my first Amelie Nothomb book...I definitely want to read another one...which would you recommend?

Lotus Reads said...

Hello Sanjay!

You must really resent not being able to read that much any more, right? I hope your work becomes more manageable so you are able to pick up a book and read for pleasure every now and again. Yes, the study and work regimen did remind me of what it's like back in INdia. Honestly, I am very glad to have left those days behind!

I am not surprised at your confusion over "koi" for I don't think I explained myself very well. Koi, from what I gather,is a little different from an affair in that even a married person can have "koi" with his means you really,really like the person, enough to spend all your time with him or her and enough to be intimate with them, but there is no major romance or talk of love. A very unusual emotion for Japanese.

Lotus Reads said...

@Danielle ~ This is my first "Europa" edition and you're right, they are so nicely packaged. I am curious enough to check their website for other novels now. You'll have to let me know when you get around to reading "Tokyo Fiancee". Would love to hear your thoughts!

@Campbele ~ You've been in Japan? As a tourist or did you actually stay there for a while? I'd love to visit Japan some day...I am sure I will find the country fascinating!

@Ankita ~ you are welcome!

@Lexi ~ I'm still trying to figure out exactly what "koi" would mean to us here in North America or Europe. It's a tricky one! Thanks so much for your comment!

Fay Sheco said...

Lotus, your description of "koi" sounded at first like what the American college students call "hooking up." When you mention married koi, I'm not so sure.

Lotus Reads said...

Yup, Fay, that's what threw me too! I guess it's a cultural thing and perhaps we will never really quite find the equivalent for it in the West. Thanks so much for dropping by, I so appreciate the visit!

Diane Dehler said...

I haven't read this yet and enjoy Nothomb's quirky writing. She is an original