A Japanese Nightmare

Republished into its original place in my blog’s timeline from my lost posts archive

Fear and Trembling by Amélie Nothumb

Translated by Adriana Hunter

This unsettling novella has an apt title. When I looked it up to see where it might have come from, I found a bible quote (also the source for a work by Kirkegaard):

Wherefore, my beloved, as ye have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.

Philippians 2:12

Further investigation revealed that it also refers to the old Japanese protocol that you should look upon the Emperor with fear and trembling to show your reverence. Until 1947, the Japanese Emperor was considered a living god. The line of legendary Japanese emperors goes back to 660 BC, although the first one who probably actually existed ruled from 97-30BC, so precedes Paul’s letter to the Philippians…

Nothumb’s story is not about emperors or gods however, hers is a satire about office mandarins and the politics of the workplace in Japan of the late 1990s.

Nothumb is Belgian, and her father was the Belgian ambassador to Japan. They lived there for several years when she was small, moving on to China, like the heroine of her story, also called Amélie who is returning to Japan for a year to work (as Nothumb did too). As a young Western woman she is lucky to get a job in a large Japanese import-export company, Yumimoto, she is hired for her ability to speak Japanese.

On day one, she has the chain of command explained to her – from Vice President Mr Hameda at the very top down through another two levels to her immediate superior, Fubuki Mori, one of the few women employees. Then comes Amélie, right at the bottom of the food chain.

Her first task is to write a letter for one of the bosses accepting a golf date with a supplier. Giving a flavour of what is to come, he just rips up each draft. One of her jobs is to bring tea and coffee to the workers, and one day she has to bring coffee to a meeting in Mister Omochi’s office. She serves it to the visitors with discrete greetings in perfect Japanese.  Later all hell breaks loose, and Mister Saito (between Mister Omochi and Fubuki) has to tell her off:

“… Mister Omochi is very angry. You created the most appalling tension in the meeting this morning. How could our business partners have any feeling of trust in the presence of a white girl who understood their language? From now on you will no longer speak Japanese.”
I was dumbfounded.
“I beg your pardon?”
“You no longer know how to speak Japanese. Is this clear?”
“But – it was because of my knowledge of your language that I was hired by Yumimoto!”
“That doesn’t matter. I am ordering you not to understand Japanese any more.”
“That’s impossible. No one could obey an order like that.”
“There is always a means of obeying. That’s what Western brains need to understand.”

Instead of quitting, she carries on. Given nothing meaningful to do she shows initiative – memorising the list of employees names and details she starts delivering the mail each morning – only to discover she has upset the mail boy who comes in the afternoon who was now worried for his job. Bawled out again, she is given a huge photocopying job to do, but the boss is never satisfied the copies are straight – she repeats and repeats it – only to find that it’s the rules for his golf club.

All along, she thinks she has an ally in Fubuki, the beautiful and serene woman who sits opposite her. Of course, Fubuki is jealous of this Western girl when she herself has taken nine years to get to one step above Amélie. Fubuki gets her cross-checking employee expenses, but Amélie proves incapable of using a calculator (this annoyed me!) and Fubuki has to take it back. However, when a boss from another department secretly borrows Amélie to help with a report on Belgian goods, guess who dobs her in to Mister Omochi? Amélie still have seven months left to go on her contract, she will not quit and lose face. The only job left for her is to clean the toilets – and even that comes with its problems in this honour-bound society…

Until we got to the toilet cleaning I was enjoying this story. With its depiction of a department ruled by alpha males stuck into a rigid pecking order, workplace bullying and glass ceiling firmly in place, it reminded me of Helen DeWitt’s brilliant satire Lightning Rods (which I reviewed here).  However, in DeWitt’s witty office fantasy, the women are ultimately able to play the men at their own game which maintained the plot in a full-length novel, whereas Fear and Trembling started to peter out half way through its 132 pages becoming less witty and fresh.

Arguably, having worked in a Japanese office, Nothumb is qualified to comment in her fiction on her experiences there, however it did make me feel rather uncomfortable.  First published in French in 1999, and English translation in 2001, it won the Grand Prix du roman de l’Académie française in 1999. However, its depiction of Western stereotypes of Japanese office-life do sit a little uneasily – and given that she calls her protagonist Amélie and builds in elements from her own experience it is hard to know where the satire begins and ends. However much of it is based on real-life, I hope that things have moved on some nowadays.

Having previously read another of Nothumb’s novellas, The Book of Proper Names reviewed here, which was an absurdist ugly duckling tale, I was looking forward to reading this one. I was slightly disappointed by Fear and Trembling, but I am still keen to read more by France’s ‘literary lioness’ as Nothumb is often monickered. (6.5/10)

Don’t forget that August is Women in Translation Month – hosted by Meytal at Biblibio.


Source: Own copy.

To explore further on Amazon UK (affiliate link), please click below:
Fear and Trembling by Amélie Nothumb, trans Adriana Hunter. Faber, paperback, 132 pages.

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