Fear and Trembling [1999/2001] – ★★
Belgian author Amélie Nothomb (Sulphuric Acid) is known for her short, thought-provoking books that often shock, but Fear and Trembling misses the mark. In this story, translated from the French by Adriana Hunter, a young Belgian woman starts working for a prestigious Japanese company Yumimoto and soon finds herself overwhelmed: she is delegated meaningless, absurd and increasingly demeaning tasks, while her relationship with her immediate supervisor Fubuki Mori undergoes drastic changes – from deep admiration to extreme hate. While Nothomb’s deadpan satire on corporate culture works at the start of the book, her attempt to shockingly satirise the Japanese culture and the difficulty of the westerner to integrate into it is completely misguided. Thus, with Fear and Trembling, what starts as an intriguing and delicate satire soon turns into something bewildering, unfocused and ignorant, a strange, barely-hidden polemic on traditional female roles and Japan with some very needless and overly-shocking episodes.
Fear and Trembling starts as a low-key, perceptive satire on corporate culture. The main character begins her trainee experience at “one of the largest corporations in the Japanese business universe” [Nothomb, 1999/2001: 7] and that means serving coffee, endless photocopying tasks, sleepless nights and complete subordination. Nothomb wastes no time in exaggerating the experience that every intern knows, ridiculing the company’s rigid hierarchy and the impersonal structure based on respect, hard-work, duty and self-sacrifice: “Yumimoto’s employees…were of value only in relation to the other employees”; “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” [Nothomb, 1999/2001: 8]. We are soon transported to Nothomb’s universe of the absurd and disbelief. This is a writer who is more interested in psychological situations that she creates, rather than in descriptions, and we soon learn of the full extent of the exploitation that the main character is subjected to…Only, at first, the heroine does not care – she is more interested in Fubuki, her new enigmatic female supervisor: “I still didn’t quite know what my job was; I didn’t care” [Nothomb, 1999/2001: 7]. The relationship between the two women reminds of the relationship between Pannonique and Zdena in Sulphuric Acid.
The second half of Fear and Trembling feels amateurish and unfocused. This is where, clearly, the author starts to run out of ideas and inserts some episodes which shock to the point of being completely preposterous. Moreover, as the story moves forward, it becomes rather critical of the Japanese culture as viewed through the eyes of Nothomb. Amélie Nothomb is an author that likes to shock and exaggerate, but attacking another country’s deep sense of tradition, historical female roles, respect for the elderly, etc. should not really please many, especially since Nothomb has very few, if any, ideas about what the Japanese culture is really all about – beyond the stereotypes of either “ritual suicides” or “community spirit”. It may be said that it is not really possible for the westerner to be truly integrated into the Japanese society, but satirising this concept in such a bad way as Nothomb does it misses the point of Japan altogether. This is also because the matter is much more complex and involves a long history of the country and its unusual development. Eccentric and liberal Nothomb does not like at all what she perceives as being the lack of individuality and independence of Japanese women, but her satire in this respect comes off only as bad taste and ignorance, shedding bad light not on Japan, but on the author herself. No culture in the world is without faults because no culture in the world is without history. It is true that there is often much weight put on those Japanese shoulders because of how the Japanese society functions (see Convenience Store Woman), but shaming the Japanese sense of duty and tradition through this demeaning and fantastical portrayal of the experience of a foreigner only exposes the author as biased, ignorant and hateful.
Unlike what other critics said, there is nothing subtle or elegant about Fear and Trembling (though it may just have started as such). It is fine to satirise another culture and produce deliciously-absurd novellas that simplify and exaggerate matters – but, first, the author has to actually understand that culture and female roles in it – Nothomb does not. Unlike Nothomb’s Sulphuric Acid, there is no expectation or reasons for the shocking horrors presented, the satire on culture is completely misguided and the whole book feels like one big sick joke which Nothomb bet to someone she can turn into a book. She succeeded.