- Paperback: 160 pages
- Publisher: Europa Editions (December 30, 2008)
"From the age of three to eighteen, the Japanese study as though possessed. From the age of twenty-five until they retire, they work like maniacs. From the age of eighteen to the age of twenty-five, they are only too aware they have been granted a unique interval: this is their chance to blossom..."Amelie Nothomb writing in "Tokyo Fiancée"
Nothomb writes this to explain the phenomenon of "train-station" universities in Japan. Train-station universities are as numerous (yes, you guessed it) train stations and most students visit campus just to meet up with friends or to model their latest outfits...academics is the last thing on their minds and because the syllabi at these universities are student-friendly, most everyone breezes through their courses.
The novel "Tokyo Fiancee" is filled with other such cultural tidbits about Japan and the Japanese, but that is not all you should be reading this for, it is also a tale of sweet but largely unrequieted love between the author, a Francophone Belgian, visiting Japan to refresh her Japanese language skills and to teach French to Japanese students and Rinri a young Japanese man, totally in love with the French language and by extension, anyone who spoke la Francaise. To Rinri, being able to express himself in French gave him license to indulge his inadmissible feelings of love...something he couldn't have done in Japanese or to a Japanese woman as it is impolite in Japanese society to talk of love. In Japan, love is the stuff of literature, not real life.
Amelie is completely charmed with Rinri and the sweet love and concern he shows for her, but when Rinri starts to press the issue of marriage Amelie gets uncomfortable and hastens to find a way out (and I thought it was mostly men that had trouble with with the "C-word"!) No wonder then, the publishers have described this as a contemporary love story, where the woman's love of independence trumps her desire to be loved and needed.
Amelie, in this sweet autobiographical novel, says what she experienced for Rinri can best be explained using the Japanese term, "Koi"which is understood as a relationship in which a couple likes one another enough to be intimate but one that does not come with the trappings of love - a relationship based on camaraderie and sexual desire rather than romance. Do we have the equivalent of "Koi" in the English language? I am curious to find out!
This is a wisp of a book, only 152 pages, but a very worthy read. Nothomb is a very entertaining writer with a mischievous sense of humor. She also skillfully uses the linguistic and cross-cultural misunderstandings between herself and Rinri to offer fun insights into Japanese traditional culture...the ending is exquisitely tender,I had tears in my eyes!
If you like "Tokyo Fiancee" you might also want to read Nothomb's "Fear and Trembling", about a sadistic coworker who instructs her in the rigid hierarchies of office life. "F & T" is drawn from Nothomb's time working at a large Japanese corporation.