A prequel to her autobiographical best-selling novel “Fear and Trembling,” Amelie Nothomb’s “Tokyo Fiancee” is a slight tale of love and doubting in Japan. The narrative overlaps the time period of “Fear and Trembling,” recounting the years between Amelie’s return to Japan from Belgium after 16 years and her starting work as a translator in a publishing corporation with all its numerous and disastrous results.
These interstitial years document Amelie’s relationship with Rinri — a 20-year-old sometime student who would like to learn French even though he’s studying it at university. The couple meet in a cafe and — after rather cliched and nonhumorous misunderstandings — become friends and then rather halfhearted lovers.
A romantic narrative dealing with culture clashes, love and leaving, “Tokyo Fiancee” is also a love story with a twist in that both Amelie and Rinri are unlikable. Despite being a “Nipponophile,” Amelie is anti-American (in an adolescent way) and broadly xenophobic — she dislikes Germans, Italians and the English language. Rinri comes across as a lazy, selfish, rich boy.
The novel is dotted with encapsulations of Western views of Japanese culture — eating whales, Mishima’s suicide, Mount Fuji, Japanese tourists and photography, extreme pornography and the blurring of pubic hair. It is almost as if Nothomb were crossing off a checklist of Japanese stereotypes. Throw in the constant confusion in meaning and relevance between the French (or translated English) and Japanese languages, East and West, male and female, and one is left with a certain existential farce that is shored up by references to Stendhal, Jean-Paul Sartre, and an appropriation of quotes and scenes from Friedrich Nietzsche’s “Thus Spake Zarathustra.” Amelie sees herself as a female Zarathustra of the Japanese mountains.
The French title of this short novel is “Ni d’Eve ni d’Adam,” which translates as Neither of Eve nor of Adam, and that title provides clues to the novel’s approach to love and difference between the sexes.
Amelie is seduced by Japan not Rinri. It is she who is interested in Japanese culture, mythology, the Japan of mountains, lakes and forests. Rinri — and his beautiful sister Rika — are more concerned with their looks, American culture and all things non-Japanese. Amelie prefers buckwheat noodles, whereas Rinri (in a Haruki Murakami way) loves spaghetti.
Japan is Amelie’s tree of knowledge, its culture her forbidden fruit. Rinri is oblivious to this. Nothomb is best when she writes about the duplicity and reversibility of cultures: To Westerners, Japan is exotic, different; to Easterners, even Belgium can seem glamorous.
The novel’s asides cover movies — Rinri and Amelie’s favorite film is “Tampopo” — food, mountain climbing and so much about writing that it is almost a metafictional exercise (writing a novel about writing a novel) sometimes bordering on the pretentious.
It is a “Shirley Valentine” for Tokyo and the 21st Century — woman meets foreign man, finds herself and ditches man. It is a quirky love story delivered in a rather old-fashioned prose lightened and enlightened by Nothomb’s delightful use of idiosyncratic metaphor and simile: “The bathtub was the size of a hollowed-out whale with its blowhole directed inward.”
Obliquely, Nothomb likens herself to Marguerite Duras — the novel can also be read as an updated version of “Hiroshima mon amour” — telling Rinri that “When you finish one of her (Duras’) books, you go away feeling frustrated.” Exactly how some readers may feel after finishing “Tokyo Fiancee.”