Tokyo Fianc�

The Belgian writer Amélie Nothomb's 22nd novel, Tokyo Fiancée (her 10th to be translated into English), presents one of the stranger dating scenes in recent literature. The narrator, a 22-year-old named Amélie (the name points to the autobiographical basis of nearly all of Nothomb's writing), is a French teacher in Japan. Her only pupil, Rinri, a wealthy, polite 20-year-old, comes to her apartment with a suitcase, which contains equipment for making Swiss-cheese fondue. The Japanese, Amélie asserts, "love to eat fondue for the playful aspect of the thing," but Rinri's version of the dish is utterly without taste. So Amélie slathers hers with Tabasco sauce, and then proceeds to dunk both hands in the cheese. When she finds that the result -- a shellac-like coating -- won't come off with soap and water, Rinri gets down on his knees and gnaws it off with his teeth.

It's a fitting start to a relationship that is, by turns, bizarre and humorous. Nothomb, an eccentric character herself, lives in France, where legions of fans devour the slender books she publishes at the rate of one a year. She dresses in all black and has a fondness for oversized hats, claims to sleep for only three or four hours a night, and drinks pepper vinegar while she writes. Her fiction draws primarily on her childhood in Japan, where her father was stationed as a diplomat, and her return to the county as a young adult, after living in places as disparate as Coventry and Laos. Her books are written in a charming, dashed-off style that undermines attempts to scrutinize them closely, suggesting events that are perhaps meant to be observed rather than analyzed. In this country she is best known for the novel Fear and Trembling, about a sadistic coworker who instructs the narrator in the rigid hierarchies of office life, which is drawn from Nothomb's time working at a large Japanese corporation.

Tokyo Fiancée is set in the period just prior to the events of Fear and Trembling, when the author's novelistic double has returned to Japan after an absence of 16 years and decides that "the most efficient way" to relearn the language is by instructing a native Japanese speaker in French. Rinri, the slimly built college student who answers the ad for her services, gets their relationship off to a comic start by introducing her to a friend, during their second tutoring session, as his "mistress." Amélie, while "at great pains" to hide her mirth, chooses not to embarrass her student by correcting him. It's the first of numerous "accidents of language" and misapprehensions that the two will have across cultures. For instance, when Amélie asks Rinri what he likes to do with his free time, he responds with the single word "playing." Cards, Amélie asks? In fact, Rinri is referring to the Japanese concept of asobu, a flexible notion that includes any activity besides working.

In other moments that upend expectations, Amélie learns that Rinri prefers spaghetti carbonara to sushi, and that he serves his guests green tea but opens Cokes for himself. "It went without saying that a foreigner could enjoy such Japanese refinement," Amelie thinks, "whereas he had already had his fill of all things Japanese." In other ways, however, Rinri is consummately respectful of Japanese customs. He insists on bathing at the sink before he will get in a tub, a practice Amélie finds as absurd as putting "clean dishes in a dishwasher." And he can still burst into tears remembering his shame at not passing the tests that Japanese children take at the age of five, to get into the best tracks at school.

Nothomb creates an enjoyable story by showing how Amélie and Rinri bond in spite of their cultural differences, eventually breaking up because they are not on the same page emotionally. What Amélie experiences for Rinri is something the Japanese refer to as koi, a lively "liking" for someone. As Amélie describes it, "Koi was ravishing, so light, fluid, fresh and devoid of seriousness. Koi was elegant, playful, funny, civilized." Love, on the other hand, is heavy, devout, "a very French élan" that is "notorious" for lacking a sense of humor. Rinri falls in love with Amélie and asks her to marry him, but for her he lacks the necessary ingredient of "unbearable danger." Ai, as the Japanese refer to love, has an "essential incompatibility" with koi, since "one falls in love with a person one cannot stand." Or, as Amélie puts it in a different moment, "no dish is sublime unless it contains a touch of vinegar." When Amélie learns that she has agreed to marry Rinri through a linguistic slip-up (Rinri presses her one night when she is exhausted, and she forgets the grammar for responding to a question posed in the negative, a construction "which is common in this complicated country"), she must test her conscience against the pleasure she experiences in just hanging out with him.

In Amélie, Nothomb presents a character who can seem both refreshingly liberated (seeking out an independent life in a country where dependency is more valued among women) and gratingly self-indulgent (wanting to string Rinri along because she is "loath to give up his charming company"). Tokyo Fiancée concludes, as most of Nothomb's novels do, with a discussion of how the narrator's struggles helped her to become a writer, but this ending may leave the reader rebuffed. By making Amélie so transparently autobiographical, Nothomb's work cultivates an insular quality, as if the novel exists more for her own edification than the readers'. It's not difficult to feel a sense of koi for Tokyo Fiancée, with its lightly sketched, whimsical style. But ai, as Amélie points out, requires hardier, more autonomous stuff.

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