Amélie Nothomb is a Belgian writer writing in French. Her father was a diplomat, therefore in her childhood Notomb lived in different countries: Japan, the USA, Laos, Burma, China and Bangladesh which strongly influenced her work. In all, she wrote 23 novels and the most famous “Fear and Trembling” (Stupeur et tremblements) was nominated for Prix Goncourt.
“Fear and Trembling” was written in 1999 and translated into Russian only 2002. This is one of the autobiographical novels by Amélie Nothomb .
Please, note that in this article the quotes were translated into English from a Russian translation of the book therefore they might be different from the professional translation into English.
The heroine of the novel Amélie unlike the writer herself was born in Japan but is living in Europe. After graduating from university she decides to return to the country of the rising sun and wants to work as an interpreter at the company “Yumimoto”. She is employed but she does not get the desired position in the company facing with various challenges.
The novel is built on the principle of contrasting European and Eastern cultures. It is worth noting that the author only touches upon the professional sphere, practically not touching the life of the characters “out of the office” that allows the reader to look at the differences in working approaches in more details.
Throughout the novel, there is irony and sometimes sarcasm with which the writer describes the European infantilisme and the Japanese sense of superiority: Western brains, I fought like a samurai, such disgusting pragmatism is not worthy of the Japanese, leave it to Western people, angry roar this mountain of meat (about Mr. Omoti), accounting Zen , the Japanese male does not differ by refining, etc.
At the same time the author does not criticize any culture but on the contrary — by confronting them she tries to convey to the reader the features of European and Japanese cultures on an equal footing. Thus, she mentions more famous names from European culture (for example, Jacques Prévert, Sisyphus, Daughters of Danaus, Pontius Pilate, etc.) than from Japanese (Tanizaki) but uses Japanese comparisons to describe the appearance and behavior of people for balance: thin and high as a bow, Fubuki’s face resembled “the carnation of ancient Japan”, a shrill voice resembling the sound of a saber.
The company “Yumimoto” seems to us as a macrocosm of Japanese firms that may be confirmed by the following quotes:
“Yumimoto” was known as the largest company in the world. Mr. Haneda headed the import-export empire that was buying and selling everything that existed on the globe. In the catalog of goods traded by “Yumimoto”, as in the children’s poems of Jacques Prévert, everything could be found — from the Finnish Emmental to the Singapore soap, from the Canadian optical fiber to the French tires and Togolese julat. What was not there!
As the zeros increased, the total sums from the world of numbers migrated to the field of abstract art.
Moreover, only the feminine view of two cultures on the issues of work and career development is considered: the relationship between the Belgian Amélie and her Japanese female boss Fubuki Mori representing in her image all working women of Japan is revealed.
Thus, the novel can be conditionally divided into three parts:
- the victory of Japanese culture;
- explanation and “justification” of opposing cultures;
- the victory of European culture.
In the first part Amélie Nothomb is defeated in the professional field, every time descending all the way down the career ladder. She has theoretical knowledge of the culture of working in Japan but in practice it turns out that the knowledge is not enough — she makes one mistake after another: she speaks with partners in Japanese, instructs herself tasks, does not pay attention to important Japanese aspects of quality work done, communicates with management as in any European company. It seems that the character refuses to reject children’s impressions of Japan and what is more important — she refuses even to try to assimilate in the host country and simply surrenders but decides to go with the flow.
It should be noted that events are becoming predictable due to their stereotyping because many features of Japan are known to Europeans in numerous films, books and scientific publications (in particular, culturological). Not an exception and the relationship of Fubuki Mori and Améli Nothomb are developing on a fairly interesting but logical trajectory throughout the novel.
In the conditional first part Amélie trusts her boss, deifies her and considers her colleague-girlfriend only because Fubuki treats Belgian more politely than male bosses. She did not even show friendly intentions towards Amélie. This is revealed in several of the phrases Fubuki abandoned in talking with Amélie:
— You will not deny that you have denounced me?
— Why should I deny this? I just did the work prescription.
— Instruction for you is more important than friendship?
— Well, it is too loud to call it friendship. I would rather call it good relations between colleagues.
And a little further Fubuki completes their dialogue:
— And I am not disappointed at all because I did not have any respect for you.
This case shows a different attitude of people towards working relations: in Europe, often colleagues communicate outside work and are friends, discuss personal issues, while in Japan there is a clear line between work and personal life. Particularly noteworthy in this vein is to recall the situation when Amélie intervened in the personal life of the headmistress, advising her to take a look at Pete Kramer who from time to time visits company “Yumimoto”. As a result, Fubuki remained disappointed and humiliated in the depths of her soul.
The second part is the internal monologue-meditation of Amélie about the fate of Japanese women and men, starting with the questions: “And Fubuki? Who is she? God or Devil? Neither one nor the other. She is Japanese”.
Here she reveals to the reader those social and cultural aspects of Japanese life that fall out of the reader’s field of view (the whole accent of the difference of cultures is developed on the sphere of professional relations): the education of girls, the system of female-male relations, the position of women in contemporary Japanese society, their rights and responsibilities. For a European, the fate of the Japanese seems unbearably heavy and “without options”, the monologue evokes a feeling of sympathy, a desire to help. The author seems to justify the behavior of Fubuki Mori by tearing down the negative attitude toward it which has developed in the first part. Now the reader pities her and most importantly understands the motives of her actions and words in the first part.
And the character Amélie is permeated by the position of a woman in Japanese society, her limitations in actions and possibilities, begins to treat the boss and her colleagues differently, remembers the mistakes made, which she begins to correct already at the end of the novel.
By the end of the novel we see a new Amélie — not hammered, surrendered, depressed and apathetic but determined, knowing her place, respecting herself and others, tactful in the Japanese manner. Recalling her own and other people’s mistakes at work she notifies “correctly” the bosses about her quitting the job: from the lowest level to the president of the company with the corresponding Japanese self-abasement, humility, fear and trembling before the omnipotent superiors.
It is especially interesting to finish the novel with a letter from Fubuki Mori with a congratulation in Japanese with the first published book. This gesture says that Fubuki Mori “recognizes” Amélie as a real Japanese woman.
In all three parts there is an image of a window and Amélie flying into the void. In my opinion, this metaphor means the following: the window reveals a broad view of the world, but this latitude is limited by the window frames; falling into this window, Amélie seems to take only one look at this world specifically from that window. By this the author wanted to say that one can not blindly live according to the attitudes of only one culture, it is necessary to know the laws and rules of life of other cultures, otherwise people fall into a dark abyss from which they can not escape. Finding between heaven and earth the very balance in which the main character of the novel stayed is first of all love for one’s culture combined with respect and understanding of other cultures.
In my opinion, the main idea of the novel Amélie Nothomb is to respect and understand other cultures at all levels of relationships.