The most efficient way to learn Japanese, it seemed,” begins Amélie Nothomb’s Tokyo Fiancée, “would be to teach French.”
It is an interesting proposition with which to begin a novel: not quite counter-intuitive, but just enough to draw you in – and keep you – so for the next 150 pages of this brief but stimulating book.
Tokyo Fiancée is either a love story about language or a language story about love. It is a story that takes place in the French and Japanese languages as much as it does in Tokyo and the surrounding environs. In fact, it is perhaps more set on the landscape of those languages than on the physical landscape of Japan on which Nothomb’s characters live and love.
Like much of Nothomb’s work, Tokyo Fiancée is somewhat autobiographical (for those familiar with her work, the events related in Tokyo Fiancée take place at much the same time as those described in Fear and Trembling). Born in Japan to Belgian diplomats, Nothomb spent significant time in other parts of the world before returning to Japan. It is at this point in her life that the story of Tokyo Fiancée begins.
A foreign language tutor for well-to-do Japanese students, Amélie finds herself suddenly swept into an affair with Rinri, one of her students and the eminently-likeable male protagonist of the novel. As their relationship progresses, Amélie reflects on the sort of things one might expect in a Belgian-Japanese love story: cultural differences, parental disapproval and her love for all (or most) things Japanese.
These conventional reflections, however, make up only a small part of Tokyo Fiancée’s meaning and import. Of far greater interest to the discerning reader will be Amélie’s oh-so-French ruminations on the nature of love.
“Love is such a very French élan,” she muses at one point. “That there are some who view it as a national invention. While I would not go that far, I do acknowledge that there is a genius for love in the language.”
It is this French “genius for love” that simultaneously makes and breaks Tokyo Fiancée. The French language plays such a tremendous role in the novel that one cannot avoid the feeling that something rather vital has been lost in translation. This is not to say Alison Anderson, the book’s translator, bungled the job. It is simply an admittance that, as Nothomb herself writes, “the worst accidents in life are accidents of language.”
That Tokyo Fiancée underwent incredible changes in its translation (the original French title was Ni d’Ève, ni d’Adam – roughly, Neither of Eve, Nor of Adam) is just as undeniable as it was unavoidable, for in no two languages can any story be told the same way. The English version is different, no doubt – but that is a far cry from saying that it is not worth the time and effort of reading.
If you are able to read French, then read Ni d’Ève, ni d’Adam – you’ll be far more likely to experience the story as Nothomb must have intended it and probably even more likely to catch the subtleties that are inevitably lost in translation. If you are unable to read French but are even the least bit interested in love, language or Japan, a quick read through Tokyo Fiancée can only further stimulate that interest.
In one of her reflections on the nature of love, Amélie states emphatically, “no dish is sublime unless it contains a touch of vinegar.” Tokyo Fiancée is no exception: a sublime yet extremely readable and enjoyable novel, for all its flaws.
Peter Chomko can be reached at email@example.com.