Category Archives: Belgium
I’m always on the look out for writers outside the tradition of the western literary canon. So this article from Signature e-magazine was a welcome change from the usual fare of promotions – there is still a long way to go before literature in translation becomes part of our stable diet unfortunately.
The columnist Kate Schatz has found 10 women writers she thinks deserve more attention because they “have produced or are producing beautiful, necessary works of literature.” These are women she believes whose work show us worlds, cultures, lives, and truths that need to be known.
The 10 come from Iran, Mexico, Palestine, Brazil, Australia, New Zealand, Japan Italy and Great Britain. I’m not convinced that Elena Ferrante needs any more exposure and Helen Oyeyemi surely doesn’t need an introduction? But there are certainly names on this list that are unfamiliar to me even if you all know them well.
Shahrnush Parsipur from Iran appeals, not because her novels weave use fantasy (not one of my favourite genres) but because she has been imprisoned for her writing. Reading her books is one form of protest I can make against her treatment.
The other writer who is calling to me is Doris Pilkington Garimara, an indigenous writer from Australia whose 1996 novel Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence sounds a remarkable story about a real-life episode in the country’s history – a government-sanctioned removal of mixed-race children from their families. This isn’t something from ancient history but occurred in the 20th century remarkably. I’ve been promising Lisa at ANZLitLovers and Sue at Whispering Gums that I would read more authors from their parts of the world. So this could be my chance (not promising it will happen any time soon though).
I also have a few names on my own list of authors I want to explore. This includes Dalene Matthee from South Africa whose novel Fiela’s Child which deals with ethnic acceptance I enjoyed last year. Ruth Prawer Jhabvala from India who won the Booker prize in 1975 with Heat and Dust which I didn’t rate very highly but I wonder if that was really her best novel? And then of course there are my latest finds (Ok, I know I am late to this party) of Yoko Ogawa whose novella The Housekeeper and the Professor and Amelie Nothomb, who wrote Fear and Trembling gave me some of the most interesting reading this year.
I could go on….and on…. and on with names but don’t want to overwhelm you but just take a look at some of the recommendations from the bloggers in several countries that have done guest posts about literature from their country.More than enough for you to get your teeth into.
I was far too excited by the phenomenal success of the Welsh national football team to post my July snapshot on the first of the month. Against all the odds they soundly beat off the favourites Belgium last night (ranked number two in the world) to get through to the Euro 2016 semi finals, the first time we’ve qualified for a major tournament since 1958.
We’re a nation whose passion is normally devoted to a different shaped ball but last night everyone seemed to be glued to the tv screens. Even me whose knowledge of the finer rules of soccer can be written on the back of a beer mat.
Don’t worry I am not about to abandon Booker Talk’s normal fare of literary postings in favour of sports topics but I hope you’ll allow me a little indulgence on this historic occasion.
So what else was I doing on the first of this month??
After months in which my world literature reading project seemed to have stalled, I added one more country to the list – Belgium. That makes 31 countries completed from a goal of 50 by January 2018. Fear and Trembling by Amélie Nothomb was a delight and thanks to sylvie heroux I have recommendations for three more books by her: The Character of Rain,
Tokyo Fiancee and The Stranger Next Door. My review is posted here.
I have two books on the go at the moment. Having made good progress so far with the 20booksofsummer challenge run by Cathy at 746 books, I’ve taken a pause to dip into my TBR.
Bel Canto by Ann Patchett is a novel I first heard of in 2013 when I was trying to think of books which had a musical theme (other titles are in this post). It got added to my TBR later that year when I found a bargain copy in a library sale. It’s set in a South American country which is desperate to attract international investment. The president hits on the idea of inviting the head of a powerful electronics corporation in Japan celebrate his birthday in the country with a lavish party at which a world-renowned soprano will perform. The President decides at the last minute he has far more important things to do (namely to watch the latest episode of his favourite tv soap opera). Which proves a problem for the insurgents who surround the birthday venue planning to take the president hostage. There follows a stand off between the terrorists and their hostages. This isn’t an action novel however, but one that looks at the way people react to danger and entrapment and how leaders become impotent while ordinary individuals find new sources of strength. So far it’s wonderful to read.
My other book is also a story of courage in the face of adversity but this is a true story. In August 2005, Hurricane Katrina caused devastation in New Orleans. The Memorial Medical Center – the city’s premier hospital – endured five days trapped by floodwater. Its back-up generators failed, leaving it without lights, air conditioning, sewer systems and essential medical equipment. Medical staff had to prioritise which patients should be evacuated, and – controversially – which patients to euthanise because their conditions were so poor.
Five Days at Memorial by Sheri Fink originated as an article which appeared in the New York Times Magazine in 2009 and went on to win a Pulitzer Prize. Fink details the events of those five days and the investigation that followed into the actions of a few members of the medical team. She then goes on to examine the legal and political consequences of the decision to euthanize patients and the ethical issues surrounding euthanasia and health care in disaster scenarios. I’m only a little way into the book but it’s riveting. There is a chilling prologue which sets the scene. In a reception area, patients lie awaiting rescue amid the miasma of the receding floodwaters. Rescue has started but it is painfully slow. A few members of the medical staff begin to prepare a lethal concoction of drugs for the most critically ill. This is not a book you can read quickly but more one that needs to be read in small chunks to allow for reflection on the key issues.
As part of my quest to enlarge my reading horizons, turned to colleagues in Belgium for advice on which author from their country they would recommend. One name kept coming up time and time again: Amélie Nothomb. I had plenty of choice of titles since she’s published more than 14 novels (the number is a bit hard to pin down because apparently she ditches a lot of what she writes to it never sees the light of day). Eventually I chose Fear and Trembling because it largely echoes Nothomb’s own life as a Belgian born near Kobe, Japan and a fluent speaker of the language.
In the novel, Amélie gets a job as a translator for Yumimoto, a prestigious international corporation whose fingers reach into multiple economic pies. It’s run on strictly hierarchical lines as Amélie describes:
Mister Haneda was senior to Mister Omochi, who was senior to Mister Saito, who was senior to Miss Mori, who was senior to me. I was senior to no one. That could be said differently. I was at Ms Mori‘s orders, who was at Mr. Saito‘s orders, and so on, with the special mention that, going downstream, orders could skip the hierarchic steps. Therefore, at Yumimoto, I was at everyone‘s order.
She trips over these protocols from her first day, in fact from the minute she walks into the 44-floor building. She should have introduced herself at the reception desk on the ground-floor but instead took the elevator directly to the top. Within minutes she gets a ticking off from Mr. Saito, the head of general accounting. Mistake number two comes later that morning when, asked by him to write a letter accepting an invitation to play golf, he rejects every draft without explanation. Demoted to tea-making duties, she faces further criticism for daring to converse in Japanese with visitors to whom she serves the tea. Robbed of any real work she begins searching for anything that will relieve the boredom, whether its delivering the mail or turning over the calendars throughout the office.
Faux pas follows faux pas, all of which are watched over Amelie’s beautiful supervisor Ms Fubuki Mori. The only woman to reach executive status in the Yumimoto corporation, Mrs Mori resents the challenge to her position posed by Amélie. She tells her:
I am 29 years old, she said. You are twenty-two. I have had my position since last year, I had to fight for it for years. And you, you imagined you were going to reach the same rank within weeks?
Further humiliation follows when Amélie is demoted to the lowliest position possible, so lowly it’s one normally done by contract workers. But Amélie isn’t one for resentment so she rolls up her sleeves and gets to work cleaning the staff lavatories:
“Anyone else in my situation would have quit. But not if they were Japanese. Fubuki thought she had found a way of forcing me to resign, and hence lose face. Cleaning bathrooms was not deemed honorable in the eyes of the Japanese, but it was less dishonorable than losing face.
I had signed a year’s contract, which expired on January 7th, 1991. It was now June. I would survive. I would do what a Japanese would have done.”
There is so much to like about this book. Amélie’s eager, well-intentioned but naive attitude is endearing and the scenes where she clashes with Mrs Mori are wonderfully portrayed. But as much as I laughed along with her at the ridiculous situations in which she finds herself, I also found myself empathising with her humiliation. We’ve all made mistakes in work but few of us (hopefully) experience the levels to which this young woman descends. I know I’ve had a couple of times in my early career where all I wanted to do was crawl back under the duvet and pretend it was another day but I was never so bad that I covered myself with the contents of the litter bin or hugged the computer.
Amélie’s year at Yumimoto gives her a chance to observe the culture of Japanese companies, which she concludes is one which robs employees of dignity.
The accountants who spent ten hours a day copying out numbers, were, to my mind, victims sacrificed on the order of a divinity wholly bereft of either greatness or mystery. These humble creatures were devoting their entire lives to a reality beyond their grasp. In days gone by they might have at least believed there was some purpose to their servitude. Now they no longer had any illusions. The were giving up their lives for nothing, and they knew it.
If this sounds bleak, they are nothing in comparison to her thoughts in Fear and Trembling on the position of women in Japan. Expectations run high: expected to get married by the age of 25; expected to be irreproachable throughout her life; expected to stay slim; expected to always look immaculate; to bear children and be a model wife.
Do not dare hope for anything beautiful. Do not expect to feel any sort of pleasure, because it will destroy you. Do not hope for love because you’re not worthy of it. …. Do not hope that you will get anything out of life because each passing year will take something from you. Do not even hope for anything as simple as a peaceful life because you don’t have a single reason to be at peace.
How much of this is an accurate picture of life today in Japan? On the few visits I’ve made I’ve certainly noticed how well groomed most women are and how petite but I put the latter down to a more healthy diet than the saturated fat and high sugar content version followed in the West. I’ve also seldom seen a woman in a senior role in a company – yes they exist but in far fewer numbers than in USA for example. But in all my interactions with women from Japan I never detected signs that they felt unduly under pressure to conform to the expectations Amélie Nothomb describes. Perhaps her own poor experiences prejudiced her views or perhaps life has changed for the better in the seventeen years since Fear and Trembling was produced. I hope its the latter.
- What’s the significance of the title? According to the narrator protocol in Japan states that in the presence of the Emperor, who until 1947 had been considered a living god, a person must demonstrate his or her reverence with fear and trembling. Terror and self abasement were considered a mark of respect.
- Fear and Trembling was first published in French under the title Stupeur et tremblements , which I think means “Amazement and trembling”
- Amélie Nothomb is the daughter of a Belgian diplomat who was taken to Japan at the age of two, living there until she was five, attending a local school and learning the language.
- This was book number 5 in my 20booksofsummer reading plan in 2016