Fear and Trembling by Amélie Nothomb, translated from the French by Adrianna Hunter
Published by Faber & Faber, 2004 (first published in 1999)
My rating: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Belgium’s Amélie Nothomb is an author known to split opinion. Having finally tried her work for myself, I can honestly say I’m… not sure what to think. This heavily autobiographical novel follows a young Belgian woman as she moves back to her childhood home of Japan for a year, to work within a vast, faceless corporation. Constant culture clashes and misunderstandings with her superiors see her stripped of more and more responsibility, but Japanese protocol dictates on both sides that it would be a dishonour for her to depart the company before her contract has ceased.
There are several interesting themes that come into play. There is clear critique of strict hierarchal systems within the business world that stifle creativity, talent and individualism, as well as the patriarchal structures that define a woman’s role within the workplace. Along that same vein, Nothomb also lambasts the impossible standards that Japanese women, as far as she sees it, are expected to live up to.
It’s also possible she’s warning against the naïve pursuit of childhood dreams. Our narrator has longed to return to Japan since departing at the age of five, but having been so young, her romanticised imaginings of what the country represents could never possibly be met. By insisting she remain within a company clearly unsuited to her, simply to save face and chase a failed dream, she prolongs and exacerbates her own unhappiness.
On a negative note, it has to be said the book reinforces a lot of clumsy racial tropes. Given its satirical nature and the fact it was written more than 20 years ago, it’s tempting to give the book the benefit of the doubt when it comes to these exaggerated stereotypes, in the hope they were included to deliberately emphasize the theme of culture clashes. Either way, I must admit they sat uncomfortably with me at times, the tone often feeling needlessly cruel. Other prejudices like fat phobia are undeniably present and uncalled for, satire or no satire.
Putting aside potentially problematic self-inserts from the author, the book does have some worthwhile things to say about the bewilderment of trying to live and work within a culture unlike your own, and the folly of serving systems that serve no one in return.
You can pick up a copy of Fear and Trembling by clicking here.