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.
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.
Read an Excerpt
Mister Haneda was senior to Mister Omochi, who was senior to Mister Salto, 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 Salto, 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 importexport 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, openplan 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 vicepresident 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.
I was just beginning to enjoy myself when Mister Salto 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 Salto'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."
1. The novel is a portrait of life in a Japanese office from the point of view of a Westerner. What seems peculiarly "Japanese" about the Yumimoto Corporation, and what things might or might not have happened in a company with headquarters in Chicago or Houston?
2. The relationship between Amelie and Fubuki Mori is central to the book. Discuss what bonds them and, eventually, what repels them. Are some of these reasons the same?
3. The novel gradually but inexorably becomes a battle of wills between Amelie and Fubuki, each refusing to back down and admit defeat. At the core is the whole issue of "face," particularly the importance of not losing it. How do you feel "face" relates to what happens in the story?
4. Amelie wants desperately to become Japanese, according to her definition of what this means. Does she succeed by the end?
5. Halfway through the novel Amelie provides a long description of what Japanese women have to endure in their culture, and how their quest for perfection both drives and dooms them. Do you think women living in this country – particularly women working within corporate structures – share their dilemmas?
6. Why is Amelie so drawn to windows? Is she suicidal? And is Amelie a victim or does she bring about her own downfall?
7. Japanese women are held to high behavioral standards. Are Japanese men held to the same standards? Consider all the men in the novel, from the maniacal bully Mr. Omochi to the saint-like Mr. Saito. Does the strict adherence to hierarchy render them in someway powerless? After all, even the supreme Mister Haneda can only stand aside and let the excruciatingly embarrassing drama between Fubuki Mori and Amelie run its course.
8. This novel is based on a true story. What do you think the original Miss Mori, whoever and wherever she is, might have felt while reading Fear and Trembling?
Fear and Trembling 3.4 out of 5based on
More than 1 year ago
More than 1 year ago
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.
More than 1 year ago
More than 1 year ago
More than 1 year ago
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
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