Fear and Trembling by Amélie Nothomb
24 April, 2014
Considered by many to be the enfant terrible of francophone literature, Amélie Nothomb has been a bestselling author of short, caustic novellas usually focused on herself and her country of birth, Japan. So I began reading Fear and Trembling with some trepidation, have stopped and started it several times before, wondering whether this small book was going to be a typical novel by a foreigner of an ‘exotic’ land. But there is often truth in why an author garners so much attention, and I discovered this in Fear and Trembling.
It’s hard not to see this novel as autobiographical. The main character is a Belgian woman named Amélie who returns to Tokyo to work for a large Japanese cooperation for a year because she wants to reconnect with a country she loves. As a minion of the lowest rank, she takes orders from her direct superior, a tall and willowy career woman of 29 named Miss Fubuki Mori. There is also Mr. Saito, Fubuki’s superior, a kindly but ineffective man. Mr. Omochi, his superior, who likes to shout and humiliate his employees. And Mr. Haneda, the President or ‘God’, to whom Amélie is forbidden to speak.
Amélie is instantly smitten by Fubuki but quickly realises that her beautiful boss who is unmarried hides a collection of complexes which casts any younger woman as a rival to be subdued. And so begins a sustained campaign by Fubuki to humiliate and constrain Amélie’s time and purpose at the office. What starts off as a darkly comic look at the state of Japan in the early nineties during the Bubble period quickly transforms into an existential query into what it is not only to be Japanese and working in a corporate environment but the nature of work, existence and acceptance.
I wasn’t sure whether I would like Nothomb’s take on working in a Japanese office, but her observations and realisations are so off-beat that I couldn’t help but smile at the caustic and yet gentle snipes at Japanese corporate life. There is a real understanding of what it’s like to live and work in Japan and the only surprise is that it wasn’t written by a Japanese writer. The style and translation by Adriana Hunter mirrors some of the contemporary Japanese literature that has been translated into English and I was completely convinced by the experiences which the fictional Amélie undergoes.
Some of the most excruciating humiliations, the silent conflict between two women working in such close proximity while hating each other is so familiar that you wonder why there aren’t more novels like this out there. The endless monotony of office life, the meaningless sums and endless filing that is repeated day after day. And yet, it is the fictional Amélie’s youth, positivity and insane way in which she rationalises and turns her misfortunes around which ultimately saves Fear and Trembling from becoming a depressing view of what is essentially an alien culture to Western eyes. No matter how much Amélie loves Japan, she will always be an outsider because she is a foreigner.
I was impressed with the stark and yet soulful manner in which Nothomb executes her slice of expatriate experience that I will be rushing to my sister’s to read her collection of Nothomb’s novels including The Character of Rain and The Life of Hunger.
I read this as part of #ReadWomen2014.