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A bout d'okonomiyaki

Hollywood Japan

The cover of Amélie Nothomb’s Tokyo Fiancée, translated by Alison Anderson for Europa Editions, depicts the only two characters in the novel: the author and the Rising Sun. They sit facing each other; Nothomb looks back over her shoulder at us, and the Rising Sun looms behind her, perfect, opaque, and blotting out everything else.

This artificially narrowed focus does not make the novel a bad one. Nothomb is refreshingly unafraid of the thin line between clever and stupid, leading to such entertainments as this:

I blessed whoever it was who had invented engagements. Life has its share of trials; a mechanism of fluids allows us, all the same, to make our way through them. […] Yes, I shall irrigate you, lavish you with my riches, refresh you, appease your thirst, but how can I know the course my river shall follow: you shall never bathe twice in the same fiancée.

She also reveals herself to be a perceptive and insightful observer — but only of herself. Every other character in the novel is a cardboard cutout whose personality derives from some essentialist stereotype or other. Nothomb’s fiancé Rinri, for example, literally cannot pour himself a drink without inspiring a Crichton-grade Japanological analysis. When he insists on washing himself at the sink, it is because he is unwilling to “sully the waters of the honorable bathtub”; when we learn that he has “traveled a great deal — and always alone, without a camera” — Nothomb is careful to note that this makes him “not typically Japanese.” Most unfairly of all, she even projects the same attitudes onto Rinri himself, such as in this medievally sparse exchange:

“Have you already brought your lady love here?”

“I have no lady love.”

“Have you ever had a lady love?”

“Yes. I did not bring her here.”

I was thus the first lady to have the honor. It must have been because I was a foreigner.

Before long we come to understand that Tokyo Fiancée is not the intense face-to-face character study you might expect of a novel about getting engaged in a foreign land. Rather, it is a carefully edited slice of one person’s interior life as they sort through some issues of their own. (Note that the action overlaps the period covered by Nothomb’s earlier Fear and Trembling — it’s hard to blame her for being self-indulgent on the weekends if that’s what her weekdays were like.)

Other characters generally feel even more phoned-in than Rinri. Exceptionalist, boorish U.S. expats; Rinri’s patronizing, cruel mother; an undifferentiated mob of gold-toothed classmates from Singapore. At the extreme of this trend are figures such as the one described only as “a Canadian girl” who gravely warns Nothomb that “these marriages” produce “the most awful children”:

“What on earth are you talking about? Eurasians are magnificent.”

“But dreadful. I have a girlfriend who married a Japanese guy. They have two children, six and four years old. They call their mother weewee and their father poop.”

I burst out laughing.

“Maybe they have their reasons,” I said.

“How can you laugh? And what if it happens to you?”

“I don’t think I’ll be having kids.”

“Oh. Why? That’s not normal.”

I walked away humming a song by Georges Brassens in my head: “No, those good folk sure don’t like it / When you head off down a different path…”

Typical Canadian! Always trying to tie down the restless Belgian soul with their rules and regulations. Fortunately, Nothomb has a companion on her smug voyage down that different path: Japan, played here by Mount Fuji itself.

Mute but friendly, the mountain is drawn more vividly than any of Nothomb’s human interlocutors, partly because of its folk-links to her early childhood (spent in Japan, though far to the west). The encounters between writer and mountain are of greater emotional consequence than her entire relationship with Rinri.

Italy’s Corriere della Sera, according to the book’s back cover, praised Nothomb for the “profound relationship she has with Japan, with its symbols, its stereotypes, its archetypes.” But this is also her greatest flaw: she is so invested in archetypes and symbols that she never breaks through to the reality they abbreviate. Some passages seem almost to acknowledge this, like this meditation on Mount Fuji:

The volcano is a sublime invention that you can see from almost everywhere, so much so that at times I took it for a hologram. I’ve lost count of the number of places on Honshu that offer a superb view of Mount Fuji: it would be easier to count the number of places from which you cannot see it. If nationalists had wanted to create a unifying symbol, they would have had to build Mount Fuji. It is impossible to gaze at it without feeling a sacred, mythical tingling: it is too beautiful, too perfect, too ideal.

Except at the foot, where it resembled any old mountain, a sort of shapeless lump.

Similarly, while the notion of koi inspires a mini-essay on varieties of amorous experience (all rooted in national character, natch), more pedestrian words like osshaimasu are casually misspelled. (Seriously — neither Nothomb, nor her editor, not Anderson, nor Anderson’s editor could be bothered checking out how to spell the words they use?)

Ultimately, this extreme disregard for the grain-by-grain trickle of experience precludes any real insight into it. Tokyo Fiancée is pleasant and generous, but never amounts to more than the tale of a European born in Japan and a Japan born in Europe.

August 7, 2009

Matt Treyvaud is a writer and translator living near Kamakura. He is Néojaponisme's Literature/Language editor and the proprietor of No-sword.

5 Responses

  1. M-Bone Says:

    Sounds like the chick lit version of Barthes.

  2. Peter Says:

    I hope to God that my parents do not decide to send me this book as a present.

  3. Peter T Says:

    The meditation on Mount Fuji is very similar in tone to many of Chris Marker’s observations in Sans Soleil, just a coincidence or is this how Francophone intellectuals approach Japan?

  4. Leonardo Boiko Says:

    As I started the review I thought the book was *literally* about only two characters, the woman and the sun. It would have been my kind of book.

  5. Matt TREYVAUD Says:

    That might actually have been a great book, yeah.

    Peter T: Good question. There’s probably a PhD thesis somewhere in Francophone-vs-Anglophone perceptions of East Asia. (But not my thesis.)