Saturday, June 20, 2015

Tokyo Fiancee

Tokyo Fiance
Amelie Nothomb, 2007.
Trans. from French (Ni d'Eve, Ni d'Adam) by Alison Anderson.

A small colossus of modern Orientalism, of modern prejudiced outsider interpretations of the East.

Amelie is a young Belgian woman in Tokyo, teaching French to Rinri, a Japanese university student a couple of years her junior.   She finds him kind, charming, sweet, genuine and very attentive.  She embarks on an affair; accepts his engagement proposal although she has little intention of following through with marriage; and when the affair has run its course, tells him that she is leaving the following day to visit her sister in Belgium, although she has no intention of returning.

Oh, how liberated she feels, despite all the anguish she causes!  Oh, how easy it is to brush aside his gentle, implied entreaties to return when he calls her in Belgium!  Oh, what a liberated, "strong", "honest", "intelligent" woman she is!  (Quotes are taken from admiring reviews in the Western press).

This is truly a novel where glibness has obscured soullessness.  The book is about how easily a pretty, manipulative, self-absorbed young white woman can wrap her fingers around a dazzled Japanese boy.  Yes, she calls him "the boy", which is patronizing at best, and at worst as if he were her houseboy in a colonial African household.  He has no depth whatsoever, except as a vehicle to explore Amelie's fairly standard and stereotypical observations about Japanese society and gender relations.   (I myself have visited Tokyo over a dozen times, including stints over 2 weeks in length, and thus have some perspective on this.)

Rinri has been awfully good for Amelie -- he is rich, feeds her vanity, and serves as cultural interpreter as well as a vessel to be filled with her naive, superficial views of Japanese culture.  (And of course, provides material for a book.)  But Amelie herself has learned nothing by the end of the book -- no deeper insight into her own cultural prejudices, privileges, and petty narcissism -- ultimately making her own sojourn in Tokyo a waste.

This book is existential proof that a quick turn of phrase, some snappy observations, and lyrical exoticism cannot hide self-indulgence, self-absorption, ethnic stereotyping and borderline racism.

It is simply breathtaking to see the praise heaped on this pile of ethnocentric vanity by the Western press and mainstream reviewers.  Since so much of the book is a paean to French culture and Francophilia, it is unsurprising that it was published by the support of the French Ministry of Culture, or that it has garnered so much praise in France.  But it is hard to understand the rest.

June 2015

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