Fear and Trembling: A Novelby Amelie Nothomb
According to ancient Japanese protocol, foreigners deigning to approach the emperor did so only with fear and trembling. Terror and self-abasement conveyed respect. Amélie, our well-intentioned and eager young Western heroine, goes to Japan to spend a year working at the Yumimoto Corporation. Returning to the land where she was born is the fulfillment of a
According to ancient Japanese protocol, foreigners deigning to approach the emperor did so only with fear and trembling. Terror and self-abasement conveyed respect. Amélie, our well-intentioned and eager young Western heroine, goes to Japan to spend a year working at the Yumimoto Corporation. Returning to the land where she was born is the fulfillment of a dream for Amélie; working there turns into comic nightmare.
Alternately disturbing and hilarious, unbelievable and shatteringly convincing, Fear and Trembling will keep readers clutching tight to the pages of this taut little novel, caught up in the throes of fear, trembling, and, ultimately, delight.
“Elegantly written . . . Nothomb demonstrates a shrewd understanding of the intricate ways Japanese relationships are made and spoiled.” The New York Times Book Review
“[A] polished little satire.” The Wall Street Journal
“A scathingly funny novella.” Newsday (New York)
“Amélie Nothomb adds humor, the ingredient most often missing in other writers from France of her generation, the ingredient most difficult to translate.” Los Angeles Times
“An utterly charming, humorous tale of East meets West . . . Nothomb is a terrific writer whose writing style is simple, honest, and elegant. Very highly recommended.” Library Journal
“A sharp, satiric new novel . . . Readers are sure to be won over by her spare, self-deprecating and wise tale.” Publishers Weekly
“Highly entertaining . . . Fear and Trembling (a perfect title) is filled with both droll observations and wry bitch gags.” Kirkus Reviews
“There can be no doubt about Amélie Nothomb's talent: her imagination, energy, facility, fertility, her edgy use of language all prove that she is a writer of enormous gifts. Her writing is as sharp as a whip, the perfect antidote to sleep-inducing novels. She wakes you up. She shakes you up . . . Fear and Trembling will keep readers entertained and on the edge of their seats until the final page.” Le Figaro
“More than anything this is a beautiful love story--in which Sappho meets the Marquis de Sade.” Le Nouvel Observateur
“Fear and Trembling is Nothomb at her finest. Never has she been so daring or inspired . . . This book is a small miracle. On second thought, no 'small' about it; it is plain and simple a miracle.” Le Point
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Fear and Trembling
By Amélie Nothomb, Adriana Hunter
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 1999 Editions Albin Michel S.A.
All rights reserved.
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.
You could put this another way. I took orders from Miss Mori, who took orders from Mister Saito, and so on up the ladder; of course, orders that came down could jump a level or two.
And so it was that, within the import-export division of the Yumimoto Corporation, I took orders from everyone.
ON THE 8th of January in 1990 an elevator spat me out on the top floor of a towering Tokyo office building. An enormous bay window at the far end of the landing sucked me over with the irresistible force of a shattered porthole on an airplane. Far, very far, below, I could see the city; it seemed so distant and unreal from that height that suddenly I wasn't sure I had ever even set foot there.
It didn't occur to me that I ought to introduce myself at the reception desk. Actually, at that moment, I didn't have a single thought in my head, nothing aside from fascination with the endless space outside the great bay window.
Eventually a hoarse voice from behind pronounced my name. I turned around. A small, thin, ugly man in his fifties was looking at me irritably.
"Why didn't you let the receptionist know that you'd arrived?" he asked.
I couldn't think of anything to say. I bowed my head and shoulders, realizing that in just ten minutes, and without having spoken a single word, I had made a bad impression on my first day at Yumimoto.
The man told me he was Mister Saito. He led me through huge, endless, open-plan offices, introducing me to hordes of people whose names I forgot as soon as he had pronounced them.
He showed me the office that was the domain of his superior, Mister Omochi, who was enormously fat and terrifying, proving that he was the vice-president of the division.
Then he indicated a door and announced solemnly that behind it was Mister Haneda, the president. It went without saying that I shouldn't even dream of meeting him.
Finally he led me to a gigantic office in which at least forty people were working. He indicated a desk, which sat directly opposite from another desk, belonging, he informed me, to my immediate superior, Miss Mori. She was in a meeting and would join me in the early afternoon.
Mister Saito introduced me briefly to the assembly, after which he asked me whether I enjoyed a challenge. It was clear saying no would not be an option.
"Yes," I said.
It was the first word I had spoken. Until then, I had made do with tilting my head.
The "challenge" that Mister Saito was proposing consisted of accepting an invitation on his behalf from someone named Adam Johnson, to play golf the following Sunday. I was to write a letter of acceptance to this gentleman in English.
"Who is Adam Johnson?" I was stupid enough to ask.
My superior sighed exasperatedly and didn't answer. I wondered whether it was absurd not to know who Mister Johnson was. Was my question indiscreet? I never found out, nor ever learned who Adam Johnson was.
The exercise seemed simple enough. I sat down and wrote a cordial letter, something along the lines of "Mister Saito would be delighted to play golf next Sunday with Mister Johnson, and sends him his best regards, etc, etc." I took it to Mister Saito.
He read my work, gave a scornful little cry, and tore it up.
I thought I had perhaps been too friendly or familiar with Adam Johnson, and composed a cold, formal reply. "Mister Saito acknowledges Mister Johnson's request and wishes to inform him of his willingness to conform with his desires by engaging in a game of golf with him, etc, etc."
He read my work, gave a scornful little cry, and tore it up.
I wanted to ask what I had done wrong, but it was clear Mister Saito did not tolerate questions, as had been proved by his reaction to my brief inquiry into the identity of the letter's recipient. I would, therefore, have to find for myself the correct phraseology with which to address this mysterious golfer, Adam Johnson.
I spent the next few hours composing missives. Mister Saito punctuated my output by tearing it up, with no other commentary than that same little cry; it became a sort of refrain. Each time I had to come up with a new formula.
There was something "Fair duchess, I am dying of love for you" about this whole exercise that demanded a certain amount of creative wit. I explored permutations of grammatical categories. What if "Adam Johnson" were the verb, "next Sunday" the subject, "playing golf" the object, and "Mister Saito" the adverb? "Next Sunday accepts with pleasure the invitation to go Adamjohnsoning a playing golf MisterSaitoingly." Take that, Aristotle!
I was just beginning to enjoy myself when Mister Saito interrupted me. He tore up the umpteenth letter without even reading it and told me that Miss Mori had arrived.
"You will work with her this afternoon. In the meantime, go and get me a cup of coffee."
It was already two o'clock in the afternoon. My epistolary exercises had so absorbed me that I had forgotten about taking a break.
I put the cup down on Mister Saito's desk and turned around. A young woman as tall and slender as an archer's bow was walking toward me.
Whenever I think of Fubuki Mori, I see the Japanese longbow, taller than a man. That's why I have decided to call the company "Yumimoto," which means "pertaining to the bow."
And whenever I see a bow, I think of Fubuki.
"Please, call me Fubuki."
Miss Mori was at least five feet ten, a height few Japanese men achieved. She was ravishingly svelte and graceful despite the stiffness to which she, like all Japanese women, had to sacrifice herself. But what transfixed me was the splendor of her face.
She was talking to me. The sound of her soft voice brimmed with intelligence. She was showing me some files, explaining what they contained, and smiling. I was dimly aware that I wasn't listening to what she was saying.
Then she invited me to read the documents she had placed on my desk, which, as I've said, was opposite hers. She sat down and started to work. I leafed meekly through the paperwork. It dealt with rulings and listings.
The spectacle of her face, a mere eight feet away, was captivating. Her eyelids were lowered over some pages with numbers, so she couldn't see that I was studying her closely. She had the most beautiful nose in the world, a Japanese nose, an inimitable nose, whose delicate nostrils would be recognized among a thousand others. Not all Japanese have this nose, but anyone who has can only be of Japanese descent. Had Cleopatra had this nose, the history and geography of the world would have undergone a major shift.
* * *
THAT EVENING, AFTER I'd gotten home, it would have been petty to have thought that none of the abilities for which I had assumed I had been hired by Yumimoto had been put to any use. I had wanted to work in a Japanese company. And that's what I was doing. I felt it had been an excellent day. The next few days confirmed that feeling.
I still didn't quite know what my job was; I didn't care. Mister Saito seemed somehow dismayed by my letter-writing skills; I didn't care. I was too enchanted by my colleague, my superior, Miss Mori, whose friendship alone provided ample reason to spend ten hours a day working in an office.
Her complexion, simultaneously white and dusky, was of the kind the poet Tanizaki describes so beautifully. Fubuki was the incarnation of Japanese beauty — with the stupefying exception of her height. Her face suggested a direct connection to the nadeshiko (carnation), a nostalgic symbol of the young Japanese virgin in former times. Perched on her towering silhouette, it was designed to rule the world.
YUMIMOTO WAS ONE of the largest corporations in the Japanese business universe. The Import-Export Division, as far as I could tell, bought and sold everything on the face of the entire planet.
Yumimoto's import-export catalog was truly titanic: from Finnish Emmental to Singaporean soda, by way of Canadian optical fibers, French tires, and Togoan jute. Nothing escaped its grasp.
The money involved exceeded human comprehension. After a given accumulation of zeroes, the sums left the realm of recognizable numbers and entered into that of abstract art. I wondered whether in the heart of this company lived some creature that rejoiced at making a hundred million yen, or mourned losing an equivalent amount.
Yumimoto's employees, like these zeroes, were of value only in relation to the other employees. All, that is, except me, who didn't even have the value of a zero.
The days passed and I still didn't have anything much to do. I was not greatly bothered by this. Being forgotten was not an unpleasant feeling. I sat at my desk, reading and re-reading the documents Fubuki had given me. They were prodigiously uninteresting, with the exception of one, which listed all Import-Export employees — their last names, first names, dates and places of birth, names of spouse if they had one, and of their children, with dates of birth.
There was nothing fascinating about these facts in and of themselves. But when you are very hungry the tiniest crust of bread is a feast. In the starved state in which my brain found itself, the list seemed as juicy as a gossip magazine. It was also the only document that I understood.
To appear as if I were working, I decided to memorize the list by heart. There were about a hundred names. Most employees were married with children; this made my task more of a challenge.
I worked at it, bending my head over the material, then raising it so that I could commit it all to memory. When I looked up, my gaze always landed on Fubuki's face opposite me.
MISTER SAITO STOPPED asking me to write letters to Adam Johnson — or to anyone else. He didn't ask me to do anything, actually, except bring him cups of coffee.
Nothing could be more normal when beginning a career in a Japanese company than starting with the ôchakumi — "the honorable function of making tea." I took this role all the more seriously because it was the only one I had.
I soon knew everyone's drinking habits: for Mister Saito, a cup of black coffee at exactly eight-thirty; for Mister Unaji, regular coffee with two spoonfuls of sugar at ten o'clock; for Mister Mizuno, a mug of cocoa on the hour; for Mister Okada, a cup of English tea with a hint of cloud of milk at five o'clock; and for Fubuki, a cup of green tea at nine o'clock, black coffee at noon, a second cup of green tea at three, and a last cup of black coffee at five. She thanked me each time with charming courtesy.
THIS HUMBLE TASK turned out to be the first instrument of my downfall at Yumimoto.
One morning, Mister Saito informed me that the vice-president was receiving an important delegation from a sister company in his office.
"Coffee for twenty people."
I entered Mister Omochi's office carrying a large tray, and performed to perfection. I served each cup with studied humility, incanting the most refined phrases in current usage, lowering my eyes, and bowing. If there were such a thing as an ôchakumi Order of Merit, it would have been awarded to me.
The delegation left several hours later. The voice of the enormously fat Mister Omochi thundered.
Mister Saito leaped to his feet, turned white, and trotted into the vice-president's lair. The Obese One's bellowings reverberated on the other side of the wall. I couldn't make out what he was saying, but it didn't sound like anything pleasant.
Mister Saito returned, his face ashen. I felt a rush of tenderness for him, thinking that the poor man was only a third the weight of his aggressor. He called for me, furiously.
I followed him to an empty office. His anger made him stammer.
"You have thoroughly antagonized the delegation from our sister company! You served the coffee using phrases that suggested you speak Japanese absolutely perfectly!"
"I don't speak it all that badly, Saito-san."
"Be quiet! Why do you believe you can defend yourself? 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 anymore."
"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."
Now, we're getting to it, I thought.
"Perhaps the Japanese brain is capable of forcing itself to forget a language. The Western brain doesn't have that facility."
This absurd argument seemed admissible to Mister Saito.
"Try all the same. Pretend. I have been given orders. Do you understand?"
When I returned to my desk, my face must have been wearing a strange expression because Fubuki looked at me with tender concern. I sat quietly for a long time, wondering what I should do.
Quitting would have been the most logical thing. And yet I could not quite resign myself to this idea. To Western eyes, there would have been nothing ignominious in this; to Japanese eyes, it meant losing face. I had been at Yumimoto barely a month, but I had signed a year's contract. Leaving after so short a time would have brought disgrace on me — in their eyes as well as in my own.
Besides, I had absolutely no desire to leave. I had gone to some trouble to get a job at this company: I had studied Tokyo's business terminology, I had taken language tests. Granted, becoming a leading light in international commerce was never my life's ambition, but I had always had a yearning to live in the country I had worshiped since early childhood.
I would stay.
I therefore had to find a way of obeying Mister Saito's order. I probed my brain in search of a layer favorable to amnesia. Were there any oubliette cells in my neuronal fortress? Alas, the edifice had its strengths and weaknesses, its watchtowers and sculleries, but nothing that would accommodate permanently entombing a language I heard spoken around me all the time.
Could I pretend to forget? If languages were a forest, would I be able to hide behind the French beeches, the English limes, the Latin oaks, the Greek olive trees — and of course the towering Japanese Cryptomeria cedars (whose name now seemed perfectly suited)?
Mori, Fubuki's patronym, meant "forest." Perhaps that was why, at that very moment, I was looking at her helplessly. I realized that she was still watching me, an inquisitive look in her eye.
She stood up and beckoned me to follow her to the kitchen. I slumped into a chair.
"What did he say to you?" she asked.
I poured my heart out. My voice was convulsed with emotion, I was on the brink of tears. I could no longer hold back what was building up inside me.
"I hate Mister Saito! He's a bastard and an idiot."
Fubuki smiled slightly.
"No. You're wrong."
"You can say that because you are kind. You don't see any harm. But, I mean, giving me an order like that, he'd have to be some kind of ..."
"Calm down. The order didn't come from him. He was passing along instructions from Mister Omochi. He had no choice."
"In that case, it's Mister Omochi who's a ..."
She interrupted me.
"He's an exceptional person. He's also the vice-president. There's nothing we can do about it."
"What if I spoke to the president about it. Mister Haneda. What kind of man is he?"
"Mister Haneda is a remarkable man. He is very intelligent and a very good man. Unfortunately, there is no question of your going to him and complaining."
I knew she was right. It would have been inconceivable to skip even one rung in the corporate ladder — let alone several. I only had the right to speak to my immediate superior, who happened to be Miss Mori.
"You're my only hope, Fubuki. I know that there isn't much that you can do for me. But thank you. Your kindness alone does me so much good."
Excerpted from Fear and Trembling by Amélie Nothomb, Adriana Hunter. Copyright © 1999 Editions Albin Michel S.A.. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Meet the Author
Belgian by nationality, Amelie Nothomb was born in Kobe, Japan, and currently lives in Paris. She is the author of eight novels, translated into fourteen languages. Fear and Trembling won the Grand Prix of the Academie Francaise and the Prix Internet du Livre.
Amelie Nothomb's novels are international bestsellers. Belgian by birth, she lives in Paris. Her novel Fear and Trembling (Griffin) was made into a successful film in France.
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I feel terrible being such a Negative Nancy about this book because the reviews I read on it were mostly good. Maybe I had such high expectations for this story that disappointment was inevitable. I don't want to spoil it for those who have not read it. The way the story is written seemed to magnify the negative aspects of Japanese culture in a very one-sided way. It is a lot darker than expected. It's only 70 pages long, and I found myself very bored the first 40 to 50 pages.
A bestseller in France and winner of numerous French literary prizes, Belgian author Amelie Nothomb plumbs her own life for her slim, sharp and funny novels of common cruelty, idealized love, xenophobia and other absurdities of the human condition. Like the author, Amelie, the narrator of her most recent novel, 'Fear And Trembling,' is a Belgian who was born in Japan and grew up all over the world. As a young college graduate, Amelie returns to her beloved Japan, having landed a low-ranking office job at a large Japanese corporation. Full of love and optimism, she is particularly struck by the beauty of her immediate superior, Fubuki Mori, one of the company's five women (out of hundreds of employees). Fubuki's grace and perfection dazzle Amelie, but it is not this platonic distraction that leads to her downfall but her own enthusiasm and Western ambition. Her first blunder occurs through an excess of perfection. Assigned to serve coffee at an important corporate meeting, she performs flawlessly. 'I served each cup with studied humility, incanting the most refined phrases in current usage, lowering my eyes, and bowing. If there were such a thing as an ochakumi Order of Merit, it would have been awarded to me.' The meeting is a disaster: ' 'How could our business partners have any feeling of trust in the presence of a white girl who understood their language?' ' Though her facility with the language was the way she landed her job, Amelie is ordered to forget Japanese. Her next blunder is more serious. Asked by another department to compile a report that uses her language facility and knowledge of Western business practices, Amelie incurs the wrath of the one person she thought of as a friend - Fubuki. Having worked so hard to reach her position, she is infuriated by Amelie's ambition and denounces her for sidestepping the proper channels. Confronted, Fubuki remains serene, casually dismisses any notion of friendship with Amelie and essentially echoes the sneer already delivered by a male superior: ' 'That disgusting sort of pragmatism is worthy of a Westerner.' ' As her career descends through various mind-numbing tasks, Amelie remains unable to repress her impulsive emotions and a catastrophic show of sympathy for Fubuki leads to a final blow from which there is no recovery. Still, Amelie does not give up and the novel develops a universal loss of face and a suspended sense of serenity, contained in small aesthetic pleasures - Fubuki's porcelain features, the meditative window view, a few minor rebellions in the company. Nothomb's style is razor-sharp but compassionate too. Amelie's outraged sense of fairness stirs the reader but so does the Japanese dignified sense of face. Which is more essential to society, fairness or face? Perfect beauty is also at the center of 'Loving Sabotage,' published last fall. Covering the years from 1972 to 1974 when she was five to seven and her family left her beloved Japan for a European ghetto in Peking, the unnamed narrator (Nothomb states in an afterward that the novel is entirely true, as far as a child's memory can be), recalls an atmosphere of all-consuming warfare among the children, when cruelty was, literally, child's play. 'In that nightmare of a country, the adult foreigners lived depressed and uneasy lives. What they saw revolted them; what they didn't see revolted them even more. 'Their children, however, were having the time of their lives.' Hilarious and fierce, Nothomb captures the essence of childhood - its self-centered preoccupation, seriousness and joy. The novel's focal point is the narrator's stunning realization that she is not the center of the world. The center of the world is another little girl, Elena, and she now revolves around her. Elena's beauty is perfection, her serene character is cool, aloof and vicious, her disinterest is not to be borne. Elena's boredom with the war does not inhibit our heroine's enthusiastic participation but her attitud