Fear and Trembling:  book cover

Book Info:
Fear and Trembling
By Amélie Nothomb
St. Martin's Press: New York; ISBN: 0-312-27218-0; March 2001; pp. 134

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Japan Blues, Ad Nauseum
By: Paul J. Scalise

Publisher Jack McClelland said it best: "You have to be a little crazy to be a writer. Think about it. It's not normal to sit in a room for hours thinking, writing and typing. That's just not normal behavior." Worse, you have to contend with all the other "crazies" out there who suffer from the same imbalance as you—sometimes more effectively. Their books actually sell; yours don't.

Most Japan scholars calmly accept this reality. Book titles like Japan: The System that Soured (1998) or Arthritic Japan: The Slow Pace of Economic Reform (2001) only confirm what we already knew: Time has taken the bloom off the rose and returned Asian Studies to a wilting specialist's game. The masses are galvanized by threats to their way of life, by the weird, sadomasochistic and "other"—not by the dry, balanced and logical. So what's the take-home message for the struggling writer: Blame an impotent economy and gladly resign yourself to a life of cheap haircuts, remaindered book sales and unreturned phone calls from your press agent? Not necessarily.

Take a lesson from the master of good publicity: Ms. Amélie Nothomb, daughter of a former Belgian Ambassador to Japan, and winner of the Grand Prix de l'Académie Française and Prix Internet du Livre for her eighth novel Stupeur et Tremblement, or Fear and Trembling. The book was recently translated into 14 languages, including English, with an extraordinary amount of praise from the Anglo-American literati. The question is why.

The French-speaking world clearly wants to contribute to our understanding of Japan, and they've had their fair share of reputable scholars like Jean-Pierre Lehmann, and the less diplomatic like Former French Prime Minister Edith Cresson. ("The Japanese are like ants," she informs us, "They stay up all night working hard, trying to figure out how to screw you in the morning.") But Ms. Nothomb's notoriety is unusual in that hers seems to be the product of a subversive wit; you never quite know if what is in front of you is a satire, a semi-autobiography or, strangely enough, some form of didactic literature.

The book title evokes a submissive and disillusioned tone that runs throughout. According to ancient Japanese protocol, or so we're told, foreigners wishing to pay court to the emperor must adopt an attitude of "Fear and Trembling." Our foreign heroine, Am
élie, is the tool through which the author can convey this idea on a grander, modern-day scale. She may want to be part of the group, assume Japanese culture, language and style, but will always risk being excluded: once for being a Westerner, twice for being a woman.

The setting is at the headquarters of a Japanese international conglomerate (Yumimoto) in Tokyo. Young Amelie, who mirrors much of the author's background, is the product of an internationalist lifestyle that lands her a seemingly prestigious job, but where she is ultimately "senior to no one."

What follows is a reinvention of Chinese water torture, Japanese-style: a series of slow, public humiliations intended to break Western spirit. Am
élie's boss repeatedly tears up an assignment without explaining the error. She is chastised for taking the initiative on a research request that wasn't directly handed down from her superiors. Then, she's pitted against Ms. Fubuki Mori, Amélie's immediate superior and de facto guide, through the mysterious world of "Japanese psychology," glass ceilings and corporate backstabbing. Fubuki explains: "Did you think that you were going to get [my] job within a matter of weeks?"

We get the picture.

Ten years ago, such popular fiction would have seemed strangely out-of-place. The leitmotif of a Western world in decline at the hands of crafty "agents of Japanese influence" was filtered through images of head-to-head competition and U.S. stagnation. Now, among Westerners, the genre has been turned on its head. "We" don't want to keep "them" out. "They" want to keep "us" from getting in. And the public is intrigued.

There is a lot of good writing here. The sense one gets after reading the first half of the novel is that painting one-dimensional caricatures of Japanese management is the point. Satire works best with extremes and the perception of Japanese business insularity, provincialism and group think is an extreme like no other. Consider the following passage between a Japanese and Am

    How could our business partners have any feeling of trust in the presence of 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.

Had the novel stopped with our heroine quitting in disgust, Fear and Trembling would have taught us that there is a limit to what rational people will do in the face of absurdity. But it doesn't, and Ms. Nothomb's novel lapses into bouts of confusion.

An example: Am
élie is ordered to double-check all the office expenses for international business trips using on-the-day exchange rates. Normal people would find this easy. But not our heroine. She is driven to madness, ripping off her clothes to run amuck and pass out from sheer stress bathed in "a layer of crumpled paper, empty soda cans and cigarette stubs soaked in Coke." But this doesn't ring true because, well, no boss would ever allow an employee to continue after such a spectacle. For satire to work, it has to contain a kernel of truth.

How, then, do we reconcile satire with streams of didactic guff about cruel "Japanese" business practices, the oppression of "Japanese" women and the lengthy discourse on glass ceilings? Well that's just it. Maybe we don't.

Maybe the author is deeply sincere. Maybe everything we thought was satire is actually a transcribed docudrama of sorts. She believes in her fiction because we believe in her fiction; it makes Westerners feel good about not being part of it. Or maybe she believes in her fiction because feminists believe in her fiction; feminists can always hark back to waging battles for equal opportunity in "oppressive regimes." Or maybe, just maybe, this is the product of just another "crazy" writer on Japan with a fertile imagination: She's just been sitting in front of her typewriter for too long.

In any case, the public loves it. So who needs to be dry and logical? Just sit back and learn about Japan a different way. Until a scholar tells you otherwise, and that's when you ask: But how does that square with Fear and Trembling?

Paul J. Scalise. “Japan Blues, Ad Nauseum: Just a Few Predictable Stereotypes Too Far.” The Asian Wall Street Journal. February 15, 2002. Pg. W7

“Ms. Nothomb's notoriety is unusual in that hers seems to be the product of a subversive wit; you never quite know if what is in front of you is a satire, a semi-autobiography or, strangely enough, some form of didactic literature.”

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