I was in two minds about picking this book up. Nothomb’s Fear and Trembling was a rather weird read for me. An interesting look into the life of an employee in an international company in Tokyo, sure, but not exactly something that would pull me towards her other books.
But with Tokyo Fiancee, I was taken, I was swept up in this little book about a Belgian woman in Japan, rather autobiographical, as was Fear and Trembling. She meets Rinri when she advertises her French lessons. Rinri is a university student, son of a wealthy businessman. She converses in Japanese, he in French, although his French is so atrocious that “If I had not known that Rinri was speaking to me in French, I would have thought I was dealing with a very weak beginning student in Japanese”.
So here we have a Belgian speaking Japanese and a Japanese speaking French. This is the first translated book that I’ve read – this month? ever? – in which language has come into play. For instance, as they discuss Mishima’s popularity among Europeans, Rinri askes: “His sentences are music. How can you translate that?”
And indeed, there are so many times when I wish that I could read these works in their original language. However, while I may have taken French classes in university, I probably wouldn’t be able to get through the first paragraph – nay, the first sentence – of this book in French. I might fare slightly better in Chinese, but really, the only language I feel comfortable in is English. Sad but true.
Nothomb, who was born in Japan to her Belgian diplomat parents and left at the age of five, has such a love for Japan. Yet it is an observant, honest view of this rather unique country.
When they travel to Hiroshima (largely to buy more plum sauce for okonomiyaki), she remarks that “it was as if people were living more intensely here than anywhere else. Living in a city whose very name symbolised death to the entire planet had exalted their living fibre; this in turn led to an expression of optimism, which recreated the atmosphere of an era where people still believed in the future.”
Or when she and Rinri scale Mt Fuji, along with children, the elderly and pregnant women (I too visited Mt Fuji. It wasn’t to climb, as we were not equipped for that, and neither did we know what we were doing, we just hopped onto the bus and when everyone got out, so did we. I just remember a group of weathered old women who got off the bus at its first stop, backpacks, walking sticks at the ready for the long climb to the top. And it is no easy feat, for a lot of it is volcanic soil),
“I joined the group. We stood watching for the star in the deepest of silences. My heart began to pound. Not a cloud in the summer sky. Behind us, the abyss of the dead volcano.
Suddenly, a red fragment appeared on the horizon. A shiver ran through the silent assembly. And then, with a speed that did not preclude the majesty, the entire disc rose from nothingness and overlooked the plain.”
This reminded me of the sunrises I have seen. From a mountain top in Hawaii where my mum and I shivered in the cold as we waited and waited for what seemed like ages. From a hot air balloon somewhere above Melbourne, the fire above melting our heads, the promise of a champagne breakfast coaxing our appetites, another hot air balloon in the distance. And the early early mornings when I used to work the morning shift as an online content producer and work started at 530am – the hush of the lamp-lit streets and the darkened office – and the very welcome breakfast break a couple of hours later.
Unfortunately the breakfast was not as amazing as these persimmons on Sado Island:
“The pulp of the fruit, exalted by frost, had the flavour of a sorbet of precious gems. Snow possesses extraordinary gastronomic powers: it concentrates sapid juices and sharpens taste. It acts like a miraculously delicate form of cooking.”
Now one of the problems I have with this book is its title – well and its cover too, both of them (I believe that is Nothomb up there, but really? Couldn’t something more interesting be on the cover instead?). Tokyo Fiancee doesn’t quite work as well as its French title Ni d’Eve ni d’Adam, or ‘not of Eve or of Adam’, which according to this review by the Quarterly Conversation is a shortened version of the French proverb “Ne connaitre ni d’Adam, ni d’Eve” which means, “didn’t know him from Adam (or Eve)”. And I have to agree, this title is so much better. Because theirs is a strange relationship. Odd, awkward at times, but also kind of cute. However, and this is a big However, the narrator is not all that easy to like. She’s rather self-centred and the ending won’t please everyone.
After Fear and Trembling I wasn’t sure if I would read more of Nothomb’s books, but after Tokyo Fiancee, I’m going to have to see what else she’s done – and she’s written a lot although not all of them have been translated.
Title: Tokyo Fiancee
By: Amelie Nothomb
Translated by Alison Anderson
First published in 2007
Published in English in 2008