When I asked work colleagues in Belgium for recommendations of authors from their country, the name of Amélie Nothomb came up time and time again.
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). 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:
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.
Amélie 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 it’s 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 it’s the latter.
Fear and Trembling: Footnotes
About the book: Fear and Trembling was first published in French under the title Stupeur et tremblements , which I think means “Amazement and trembling.” What is 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.
About the author: Amélie Nothomb is the daughter of a Belgian diplomat who was taken to Japan at the age of two. She livedthere until she was five, attending a local school and learning the language. Culture Trip has created a list of her 10 most notable novels.